Watching actress Marin Ireland in the one-woman show On the Exhale, you find it hard to breathe. For much of the short play, the emotion is so intense that (despite the title) you don’t want to inhale or exhale.
In this play about the horror—and fascination—of guns, no weapon is ever seen on the stage. But guns, and the American enthrallment with them, has never been better displayed.
Writer Martin Zimmerman’s powerful show about a woman devastated by the most tragic gun violence hits every emotion of fear, tragedy, loss, and revenge. But it never becomes predictable and offers enough twists to keep you constantly riveted.
Ireland’s character—an unnamed professor of women’s studies—opens the show standing at the edge of the stage and describing what it was like to be shot by a student in her class.
She’s smiling as she tells it, which doesn’t immediately seem to make sense. Then she explains that the shooting was a dream—but her fear is real. She feels the anger of a male student who she has challenged.
“This is the first time you entertain the possibility that it might not be someone else on the news next time,” she says.
In jeans and a sweater, her long blonde hair pulled back to show off her fine-featured face, Ireland is sweetly self-effacing as she describes the steps she takes to protect herself. She locks her door during office hours and has a strategically placed mirror (“something tasteful with a thrifty frame”) to spot anyone coming around the corner. She’s slightly embarrassed by her precautions which even her therapist finds excessive.
But her main worry is Michael, her second-grade son. If something happens to her, there is nobody to take care of him. She is a single mother with nobody to fall back on, and nobody else means anything in her life. Her terror of abandoning Michael to violence is so vivid that you expect it to become real.
She does, too. And when the department chair comes to tell her that there is a shooter, she feels like her paranoia has been vindicated.
Instead, Zimmerman uses his lyrical, poetic rhythms to give a first devastating twist.
You always imagined it happening to you, Ireland says
So when you hear her say
“There’s a shooter at the school”
you think she must mean your school.
Not the school.
The elementary school.
And that is pretty much when Ireland stops smiling and the audience stops breathing.
Michael has been killed in a school shooting that brings to mind the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, in which Adam Lanza shot 20 children and six staff. Zimmerman has said the play was inspired by the incident.
Ireland’s first emotions after the event are what you’d expect—total shock and resentment of anything still alive. She wants to know exactly what happened in that room.
Fixated on finding someone to blame, she finally focuses on the man who sold the killer his gun. Driving over to the store, she imagines raging at him about he profiting by murdering her son. But then she finds “a man who looks not at all like the merchant of death… but a placid grandpa.”
Instead of hating guns, she becomes obsessed with them. Guns can kill, but they can also give power and control. Americans who love their guns will understand the sense of strength that Ireland suddenly gets. Instead of fighting against guns, she embraces them.
Rare is the play that can make us understand both sides of an argument. But what seems like a paean to gun control soon becomes something the NRA could appreciate, too. Ireland makes even the most liberal audience members feel the power and appeal of the weapon.
The assault rifle soon becomes Ireland’s dearest companion. One that she brings with her when she flirts with a pro-gun Senator and goes home to his apartment.
Chekhov would tell us that a gun shown in the first act has to be fired in the third act. But in this one-act show, Zimmerman goes in directions that you wouldn’t expect.
The first time I saw Marin Ireland on Broadway, she was shooting down an ex-boyfriend with a searing, blood-drawing speech in the Neil LaBute play Reasons to Be Pretty. She got a Tony nomination for her unmitigated anger.
Now the shots she’s taking aren’t just with words. And Ireland is surprisingly more restrained than in that 2009 LaBute show where her scorching emotion was on full display.
But she has chosen the right tone here. The story doesn’t need to be screamed. Her character is trying to keep a grip on herself, to avoid being a victim. Though the language tries to be detached (Zimmerman has her say “you” rather than “I” throughout), Ireland is deeply engaged in every word, motion, and emotion.
Ireland is quietly emerging as one of our great character actresses. She current stars with Giovanni Ribisi on Amazon’s Sneaky Pete, and she’s also been a terrorist on Homeland, Lena Dunham’s classmate on Girls, and Chris Pine’s ex-wife in the movie Hell or High Water.
But in this play, she doesn’t need anyone else. Alone on stage, Ireland is captivating and has all the power she needs—with or without a gun.
On The Exhale is at the Black Box Theatre, 111 West 46th Street, NYC, until April 2. Book tickets here.