Imagine you’ve been threatened with a pistol. Imagine threatening someone else with one. Imagine hefting a rifle for the first time. Imagine feeling it become a natural part of you, the way Sweeney Todd feels about his razor. Imagine being in a position to decide how easily people can obtain such weapons. Imagine having this decided for you, and for others. Imagine losing someone to gun violence. Imagine wanting to cause this loss for someone else.
Some or all of those imaginings will be summoned up, as if by the wave of a magician’s wand, in anyone who attends a performance of the compact and relentless new play On the Exhale, written by Martín Zimmerman and performed, in the Roundabout Underground series, with steady drive and uncommon intelligence by Marin Ireland. Though one may be aware of lighting instruments, nothing else in the space says this is a theater; there’s no setting apart from a slightly raised platform, and no sign of a backstage area or a control booth. We’re simply in a room, and she walks in, through the same door we used, and begins talking. Part of the trick is that she speaks in second person, like a hypnotist, but you probably won’t notice (the only person I asked didn’t). “You’re at your desk for office hours one day, and one of your students walks in”: it begins something like that. Soon, you’re mesmerized, you’re with her—you are her. You go where she goes, learn what she learns, think what she thinks, and do the things that she does, which you might’ve said beforehand you could not conceive or simply would not do.
Which is not to say the audience is totally “immersed,” as the claim for virtual-reality experiences has it. A part of us remains aware that it’s a performance we’re watching, and a story we’re hearing, and a theatrical experience that’s being subtly shaped with sounds and effects of lighting—the background buzz of fluorescents, for instance. It’s not traditional realism, which is typically scenic; in a way, it’s expressionistic, in that it evokes inner experience, but again without the visual element. More than anything else, the show is novelistic, I think. It just works, as Steve Jobs used to say about Apple’s carefully crafted products, and I admire it a lot.
I don’t entirely buy it, though. The easy thing to say is that On the Exhale is about gun violence, but that’s too simple. Better to say it’s about a force in the world that’s been with us for a long time and that remains to be reckoned with; it’s about the threat of firearms, the power of firearms, the allure of that power, the danger of the allure. Zimmerman dramatizes these things ingeniously and well, by particularizing them—he embodies them all in one woman’s experience. Where I felt the spell weakening momentarily was in some of the places the story took me, and yet it had to go there in order to do what it does.
Regardless, Marin Ireland as the woman—she’s not given a name—is entirely compelling. The show is essentially an hour-long, intermissionless, musical solo for one voice. Not a breath in Ireland’s long, sustained delivery is out of place; not a note is struggled for; none of the tempos and rhythms feel anything less than assured.
She’s the kind of performer who’s apt to be described as fearless. I’ve seen Ireland go to extreme places and do extreme things, painful things, especially in Sarah Kane plays. Some performers can do such things and are willing to do them onstage; others can’t or won’t. I’m not sure how much it depends on courage; it may matter more that we detect the willingness, a certain boldness of commitment. In any case, what Ireland does as the woman in On the Exhale is less visibly extreme, but one’s sense of Ireland’s intrepidity still figures in. You may doubt the script here and there, but you don’t doubt her; she keeps you in her grip the whole way.
On the Exhale runs through April 2 in the Roundabout’s Black Box Theatre, on West 46th Street. Leigh Silverman directed; the set is by Rachel Hauck, the costuming by Emily Rebholz, the lighting by Jen Schriever, and the sound by Bart Fasbender. All of them did good, subtle work. More information is available here.