All Things Entertaining and Cultural
She grew up in rural Oregon on a farm that was 50 miles from the nearest police station and a considerable distance from its nearest neighbor. In the event of an emergency, Lewis’s family would rely on the volunteer fire department in their remote part of a remote county. They could respond in about 10 minutes.
Guns were a staple of the Lewis home. In autobiographical her play, “The Gun Show,” Lewis has her alter ego, Ellen (the playwright’s actual first name), played by a man, Trent Blanton, tell us three loaded shotguns rested all the time against a kitchen wall of that farmhouse, and if an unknown vehicle pulled in the family driveway, she or one of her relatives would poise a gun at the visitor until it was ascertained he or she meant no harm. Lewis, or Ellen, also describes hunting, target practice, shooting competitions, and other activities that were an integral part of growing up where she did as she did.
The point is Lewis in familiar with guns and all of their uses. Having them around her and learning to shoot them were lessons in her general education and made her comfortable around firearms and respectful to the Second Amendment of the U.S, Constitution, the right of the individual citizen to bear arms.
As “The Gun Show” evolves, via five separate stories that describe Ellen’s experience with and relationship to guns, Lewis carefully keeps it from being a polemic. Her purpose is to stimulate the debate on guns and gun ownership while offering tales that range from the matter-of-the-fact to the terrifying and sentimental. Lewis, even though she tells you how she feels about certain incidents, leaves final judgment about guns to you. Her stories are backed with research and statistics, also presented objectively, that could have you wavering in your ideas and allegiances throughout the course of the play.
Debate, as opposed to simple relating of facts, is also discouraged in a post-play dialogue that is part of “The Gun Show” and takes place immediately after the formal, scripted part of Lewis’s show has finished. Moderator June Ballinger, the artistic director at Passage, asks for members of the audience to share their experiences with or stories about guns. She clearly states she wants to avoid politics and entrenched attitudes from either side. Some in the dialogue cannot curb the urge to editorialize, but for the most part Ballinger keeps the conversation in the spirit she and Lewis have mandated, and people stick to narrative details more than they opine. (I, who own a gun, later told my stories to Lewis, one involving an incident that happened to my nephew’s friends, one about finding my father, who suffered from dementia and had frequent thoughts about World War II holding a gun, his not mine, and gently taking it away from him and hiding it, and one about being robbed at gunpoint.) People who don’t want to speak to the house can write their gun experiences on sheets of paper Lewis collects.
Lewis’s insistence on balance and on veering away from anything that could become judgmental helps “The Gun Show” remain more dramatic. The tension stays packed in the individual stories Blanton relates as Ellen. The statistics, usually percentages of calamity in a gun home vs, a home with no gun, also reported by Blanton as Ellen, provoke thought and can actually carry more influence than the stories in terms of creating shades of gray about American gun policy. To Lewis’s and Blanton’s mutual credit, none of the material in “The Gun Show” is bland or academic. Lewis has paced her show with a rhythm that keeps you open to receiving information and ready to go one to the next specific, and dramatic, encounter Lewis has had involving a gun. Director Damon Bonetti also shares prominently in the Passage success by creating a rich texture for the production and establishing a deft juxtaposition between the researched and the personally lived.
Trent Blanton is remarkable in neutralizing the risk Lewis took when she decided to cast a man as Ellen. Blanton looks particular rugged and rural in the unbuttoned red plaid flannel shirt he dons over a simple dark T-shirt and jeans. He looks larger on stage than he does in life, and the effect is one of a person who is adept with firearms, in command of his life, and safe when it comes to anything involving a gun.
Blanton in no way even attempts to feminize his character, even when she refers to herself in third person, as Ellen. You definitely feel as if the stories you’re hearing are a man’s, but then information about Ellen’s boyfriend’/husband is given, and Lewis’s casting device seems more strategic and necessary.
Blanton relates Lewis’s stories in an effective, affecting way, but a man telling about a robbery, a romance, or a suicide is different from the woman who lived through all of these things doing it. Having a man relay Ellen’s experiences distances them in a significant way. Blanton may be moving, but he, possibly at Bonetti’s behest, is not sentimental. You feel the impact of what he’s saying about a man who knows and can be trusted around guns, but the story is not as heartbreaking or gutcrunching as it may have been if a woman told it.
This filter put over the raw emotion Ellen feels when the love of her life self-destructs gibes with Lewis’s intention, obvious throughout “The Gun Show,” to avoid polarization and side-taking and allow audience members to come to their own conclusions, even if they entered Passage’s auditorium with their minds made up and tied in a secure ideological bow. Ellen’s ideas about guns changes. Lewis is almost like a sociologist who want to see if her audience’s ideas will. More complex than challenging one’s view, Lewis’s script is crafted to show all varieties of gun ownership and gun use. Making an ending or a defining incident that dominates too much in intensity would go against the author’s penchant for fair-mindedness. E.M. Lewis wants you to be entertained and moved. She works in the theater. She also wants to appeal to your head as much as your heart as you consider all you heard about guns, how they’re used, how they can be used, how they can be friend, and how they can turn into foe. “The Gun Show” derives its drama and depth from the text of the stories. They are enough to make a point without Lewis having to emphasize one episode over another.
The combination of Lewis, Blanton, and Bonetti accomplish Lewis’s aims because your mind is constantly engaged, at first in thinking about where Lewis is going with her introduction and eventually in relishing the variety of information and how completely and engagingly it’s been presented. “The Gun Show” remains a piece of theater, first and foremost, but it also manages to generate consideration and conversation. You are bound to talk about guns, and the American affection or revulsion for them, on your way home and afterwards. Lewis has accomplished what I think are two simultaneous intentions — to tell a story theatrically and to spur perspective on guns and what official policy should be concerning them. In the first piece I wrote for NealsPaper, a short blurb I actually composed to test whether I could figure out how to format and post copy on the web, I said I want my commentary to be one voice in a dialogue. I don’t know whether I always live up to that objective, but E.M. Lewis does. “The Gun Show” is one example, a rare one, of what might be considered political or persuasive theater that gets its intellectual mission accomplished while keeping its dramatic and theatrical values high.
One reason is Blanton and Bonetti kept the actor’s recitation so real and direct. Blanton, sitting at a table with a tabbed loose leaf binder in front of him, almost as if he’s going to read rather than act from memorization, captures you with the simple act of saying he’s going to tell you five stories. There’s a “once upon a time” invitation to his approach. He compels you to listen.
Revelations comes as they fall in the script. Blanton never tells you he is playing a woman named Ellen. You learn that when he refers toEllen, and you realize he’s talking about the character he’s portraying. Again, Lewis has used a distancing technique. She starts Blanton talking, and you listening and getting more engrossed, before she surprises you with the character’s gender. Had she told you straight out, as she does with most of the information in “The Gun Show,” you would have been self-conscious about the device. The gender change may have been taken as symbolic. By springing it on you incidentally, you take in your stride and murmur internally, “Oh, that’s interesting,” as you keep place with the play. Lewis’s choice doesn’t even seem awkward when Ellen shows pictures of her with the friend who was robbed with her or of her in the arms of the man who would be her partner, in courtship, engagement, and marriage, for more than a dozen years.
Bonetti and Lewis use the script that stays on stage throughout “The Gun Show” in clever ways, again to call attention to a situation or to create tension the way Alfred Hitchcock would use a McGuffin. (It dawned at me that Bonetti starred in “The 39 Steps” for Theatre Horizon and directed it for Hedgerow.) In one instance, Ellen is asked to dump the contents of a box on the stage so the audience can see them in entirety. As a director might expect an actor to do, Blanton lightly tips the box so that a light blue denim shirt we’ve seen previously falls out. Back at the table, the next page of the script reads in boldface capital letters, “No, dump the whole box. I mean it!” The moment is comic, but it’s also fraught with uneasiness because you expect a gun to be in the box, and you know what a revealed gun means in the theater. It means the weapon has to be used in some way. Given all the audience heard to that point, the introduction of a gun to “The Gun Show” would cause anxiety and certainly break Lewis’s cleverly wrought balance of the enlightening and the provocative. It also would have brought too literal a note to a production that was doing just fine on narrative.
Blanton does aim a flashlight at audience members to illustrate points or to imply the person in the story is the person being illuminated. That device could also be both funny and unsettling.
Blanton keeps his audience listening in a way that makes you want to hear more. He also has a knack for scuttling the usual actor’s trick of looking above or next to you, and making direct eye contact.
“The Gun Show” is a play that grows in your thoughts as you proceed through your week, especially when you watch the news and see how the national penchant for guns as weapons to coerce, injure, and kill is in high throttle.
“The Gun Show” runs through Sunday, February 8, produced by Passage Theatre Company at the Mill Hill Playhouse, 205 E. Front Street, in Trenton, N.J. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets range from $30 to $12 and can be obtained by calling 609-392-0766 or by visiting www.passagetheatre.org.