ON THE EXHALE (Theatre Exile): A one-woman show handles a loaded issue

Suli Holum on the exhale
Suli Holum in ON THE EXHALE. Photo by Paola Nogueras.

Lights up on the always captivating Suli Holum alone on Theatre Exile’s barren black box stage delivering Martin Zimmerman’s visceral, thoroughly modern, elegant one-woman show inspired by the tragic 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School mass shooting.

I should note: the lights, designed by Alyssandra Docherty, do not merely go up, they shine directly, brightly in the eyes of the audience like an interrogation so that even before the audible exhale which opens Holum’s performance we feel her character’s sense of powerlessness and entrapment instantly. Then words begin to pour out of her drop by drop as she relates a nightmare of being held at gunpoint by a disgruntled, entitled young male student, and the eventual loss of a her only child  in an elementary school shooting which unfortunately was not a dream.

In the first 15 minutes it’s easy to lock your attention onto Matt Pfeiffer bare-boned production. Everything you could ever want in a theatrical experience was here in Theatre Exile’s black box: A stellar actress performing a solid, socially relevant solo show. Yet, try as I might it was hard to remain locked on to it, and sitting in the dark I didn’t know why.

Then I consulted the script under notes on production, Zimmerman clearly states: “two things are a must: 1) Robust physicality and 2) Metaphorical (live) sound. …These two elements have a vital place in all of my plays.”

Yes, Suli Holum was technically on her feet the entire time yet her physicality was far from robust, and her breath/voice was the only sound in the theater for the entire 70 minutes.

I cannot blame the director or the actor of this production for my chronic sense of detachment, and this Brechtian alienation is inherent in a script revolving around an unnamed, strong and independent yet detached, academic woman who lived only for her now-dead son. She is removed from her words just as she removed herself from her own life. She almost hovers over her words telling her story in the past tense. It’s like she is already gone. The script isn’t flawed, it is merely reflective of our society and the way we receive tragic news on a daily basis, as when a New York Times account of school shootings which have occurred this year is delivered with detached precision in the form of a list.

[Theater Exile, 1340 S. 13th Street] November 29-December 22, 2019; theatreexile.org

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