Americans love guns. Or, rather, half of Americans love guns, while the other half, characterized in The Gun Show as “granola-eating, Whole Foods-shopping, Rachel Maddow-listening, liberal pinko lefties”, wants to ban them all forever. Like many issues of national discourse, the only audible voices are staunchly for guns or against them, with the middle ground left to shrug its shoulders in silence.
[jump] The Gun Show, now on stage at Berkeley’s Impact Theatre, seeks to lend a voice of nuance and reason to the conversation, through five stories that show how the conflicting sides of the gun debate play out within the life of one person. It’s a one-woman show of sorts, in which the woman, playwright E.M. Lewis, is played by a male actor, in this case a very credible Peter Townley.
On an austere stage with just a table and a box of photos, The Gun Show begins with Lewis’s childhood in rural Oregon, where the nearest police station was 50 miles away and responsible people kept guns as a logical means of protecting their families. It then moves to a sweet and pastoral scene of a love-drunk young Lewis shooting guns with her fiancé. Lewis and her lover target shoot across a sun-drenched lake while making their way through a six pack, illuminating the sexy and exciting side of firearms, and the way a gun in the right hands really can make you feel safe.
The next three stories then veer toward the adult tragedies and traumas that occur when Lewis’s life intersects with guns — situations that erase the idea of gun as protection. For a play that insists it’s not taking sides, these three stories of gun violence hit so much harder and hold such greater weight in the narrative that it’s hard not to leave the theater with the dark vignettes stuck in your gut much more firmly than the two happier ones.
The weakest moments in the production are the meandering bits of self-reflection that take place between each of the five scenes. The shift the play into the realm of personal essay in a way that feels like a Ted Talk or an Inconvenient Truth-style documentary. “There’s a conversation to be had and we’re not having it,” Lewis insists, but it’s her personal experiences that lend the most weight to the conversation, not her rather repetitive commentary about the need for more balanced debate.
But when The Gun Show does immerse the audience fully in scene, when we are at that Oregon lake or staring down the barrel of a gun, for example, it rises to more than rhetoric. Townley has the presence and gravitas to pull us deep into a moment, and I wish the script had let him go there more often.
At the end of the play, Lewis asks the audience, “How many people do know who’ve killed themselves with a gun?” followed by “How many people do you know who’ve protected themselves with a gun?” I suspect that most members of the audience had similar answers. The Gun Show may not take sides in the gun control debate, but the questions it asks point to America’s need to do something, anything, to make everyone safer.
The Gun Show, Thursday-Saturday, 8 p.m., hrough Oct. 10, at the Impact Theatre, 1834 Euclid. Berkeley, 510-224-5744, advanced tickets $15-20, $20-25 at the door.