WATERLOO -- Two columns stand on either side of what serves as a stage in McElroy Theatre, the intimate black-box performance space at the Waterloo Community Playhouse’s Walker building. On the columns, carefully lettered in white chalk, are the dates and locations of about 200 school shootings that have taken place in the U.S. since 1999’s Columbine High School shootings.
The WCP’s newest production, “The Library,” written by filmmaker Scott Z. Burns, was partially inspired by the Littleton, Colo., school massacre where 13 people were killed and more than 20 others wounded before the two teen gunmen killed themselves.
“The Library” is hard to watch, and that isn’t a bad thing. The audience isn’t supposed to settle in and get comfortable while watching a mother’s quiet outpouring of anguish at the murder of her daughter, or turn away from the pain and bewilderment of a teenage girl who is wounded. But instead finding compassion and solace for her grief, she learns the whole world has turned against her in the aftermath of a mass killing at her high school library.
Director Greg Holt has coaxed strong performances from his actors — several in particular are outstanding — in bringing Burns’ razor-thin plot to life. It’s more like a screenplay than a script for a play, but all those short scenes and cut-aways underscore the emotional weight of each scene.
Caitlin Gabriel (Julia Corbett) is seriously wounded in a school shooting by a gunman, Marshall Bauer (James Miller) she may have known. He killed her best friend and took the lives of a dozen of her classmates. In the midst of undergoing multiple surgeries and trying to piece together her life, she stands accused by classmate Ryan Mayes (Joel Ochoa) of telling the gunman where other students were hiding.
Although Ochoa isn’t playing a lead role, he is pivotal to the story. In a single statement to the news media, he sets off a maelstrom by condemning one girl as a snitch and another girl, Joy, as a saint who was praying right up until her moment of death. Ochoa gives Ryan such an air of innocence and determination that his recollection of events is true, that it’s impossible to believe malicious intent in his finger pointing.
Everyone is looking for a scapegoat because the shooter is dead. Caitlin's version of what happened doesn't match Ryan's story, but his is the more emotionally powerful, almost life-affirming, in spite of the loss of life.
Caitlin is perceived as a liar and coward who sacrificed classmates to save herself. Imagine being 15, traumatized and suffering physical pain and the psychological wounds of survivor’s guilt, then being ostracized by friends and community, condemned by the world on social media and victimized again by people looking for someone to blame.
Corbett is wonderful as Caitlin. She is bewildered, hurt, sad, angry and afraid, but Corbett gives her character the strength to bend but not break beneath the strain. Even when her parents, played by Joe Frenna and Elena Cafaro, urge her to come clean so they can move on with their lives, Corbett’s Caitlin continues to proclaim her innocence.
Frenna is always a marvel to watch. He’s so natural as an actor, and as Caitlin’s dad, he brings heft to the role. Their connection feels real. He adores his daughter, but is guilty that he wasn’t there to protect her and believes protecting her now is having her own up to what happened in the library. Maybe then, his family can figure out how to get back to “normal.”
Playing Joy’s bereft mother Dawn, Leslie Cohn’s performance resonates with raw emotion. She is so fervently determined her daughter will be remembered as a martyr that,at times, it borders on delusional. There is love mingled with horrific loss and more than a little anger.
Sound and lighting effects by Dan Waterbury and Scott Schuster, respectively, bring a stark and heightened realism to the production. Even more effectively, the play doesn’t take sides or tell the audience what to think. It’s not until the end of the play, when we hear the harrowing 911 recording that the truth is revealed. Then we’re left to exit with our own perspective of this sad aftermath.
See this fine production through Sunday. For tickets, go here.