As artistic director of both New Repertory Theatre and BU's Boston Center for American Performance, Jim Petosa prioritizes plays with a bearing on our present cultural moment. Sometimes they're freshly relevant pieces plucked from the repertory; sometimes they're new works that crackle with political currency.
Yet he'd surely prefer that the latest collaboration between these troupes was not so topically on point. Jennifer Barclay's "Ripe Frenzy," making its world premiere at BU's Studio ONE, examines the impact of school shootings. This production was already deep into rehearsals when the latest prominent entry engraved itself on that roll call of American tragedies.
Something Barclay knew when she wrote the play and Petosa knew when he programmed it is that the topic of mass shootings is an evergreen in the United States. If "Ripe Frenzy" wasn't freshly topical during this first run, it may have proved to be so during the second or third legs of the rolling world premiere.
As things turned out, the name of the Parkland shooter became a late addition to the script.
The play seems written more in sorrow than in anger. It spends precious little of its 80 densely packed minutes pointing at possible causes of this bloody epidemic. Instead it's a close reading of the impact of a school shooting on those who are left behind, and the tools we use to try to make sense of a seemingly senseless event.
The centerpiece of the story is Zoe, a mother of a teenage boy rendered in a carefully controlled portrait by Veronika Duerr. The actress spends much of the show in direct address, guiding the audience through her memories of the story behind a high school production of Thornton Wilder's "Our Town" in the fictional small town of Tavistown, New York.
Zoe is the local historian and an alumnus of the school, where frequent productions of "Our Town" are a rite of passage. "Ripe Frenzy" loosely emulates the structure of Wilder's classic, with Zoe serving the Stage Manager role of guiding us through memories that skip across time, though during the comparatively compressed period of a few days.
Miriam (Stacy Fischer) and Felicia (Samantha Richert) are fellow parents involved with the "Our Town" production, and they form an empathetic and convincing trio of friends along with Duerr's Zoe. Two BU students acquit themselves well in dual roles. Reilly Anspaugh is Miriam's believably bratty daughter Hadley as well as Bethany, a socially awkward teen who seems to have a crush on Zoe's son. Henry B. Gardner is Bethany's amiable boyfriend and also an ominous figure seen in a fantasy sequence.
Zoe's son, also a student at the school, is an unseen but ever-present force, operating (we're told) the video accompaniment to his mother's tale. There are video screens upstage and on the walls on either side of the audience, showing footage that toggles between pleasant, small-town scenes and disquieting images like one of dead deer.
Director Bridget Kathleen O'Leary crafts a sensitively told and deeply affecting production, smartly using the performance space itself (including the actual doors to the theater) to hammer home the immediacy of the story, even turning the camera, as it were, toward the audience in a chilling moment near the climax. O'Leary works in lockstep with her excellent design team, including David Reiffel's highly functional sound, David Orlando's well-sculpted lighting and Afsoon Pajoufar's moody scenic design.
The projection design, by Jared Mezzocchi, is a key character in the play, representing Zoe's son jostling for control over the narrative. It's quickly clear the boy is trying to drive toward confrontation of something disturbing and terrible that his mother prefers to avoid. Zoe insists more than once: "That's not our story!"
Inevitably, it becomes our story. When everyone onstage starts receiving smartphone notifications about a deadly school shooting elsewhere, we wonder how close to home the play's tragedy will strike. In Duerr's superbly lucid performance, we track the emergence, repression and eventual confrontation of demons that will not be ignored.
If "Ripe Frenzy" doesn't propose a singular solution to the problem of gun violence, it is very interested in the performative nature of contemporary life as mediated by the screens of phones, computers and televisions. The urge to have a personal audience is not necessarily a shallow one, Barclay seems to say, but the easiest attention to garner may be the least satisfying — and there's much psychological damage in the experience of not feeling seen.
The play is a valuable addition to the conversation about gun violence in schools. It's also a reminder that, in the absence of meaningful action, its subject is unlikely to become less relevant anytime soon.
New Repertory Theatre's "Ripe Frenzy" is at BU's Studio ONE through March 11.