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A play about school shootings fails to break new ground

Dan Walker and Sheila Toomb try to find their way in the dark.

By Rebecca Fishbein | Posted 7/9/2010


Written by Alec Lawson

Through July 11 at the Strand Theater

The issue of school shootings and student violence has been a prevalent topic over the last decade, especially in the aftermath of the devastating massacres at Columbine High School in 1999 and Virginia Tech in 2007.

The emotionally charged Afterthoughts, written and directed by recent Loyola University graduate and local playwright Alec Lawson and currently playing at the Strand Theater, takes a close look at the instability and anger sparked by these episodes of campus violence, as well as the question of whether or not shooters can or should ultimately be forgiven for their actions. But the play comes off too much like an after-school special.

Afterthoughts is comprised of two interwoven parts. In one, Michelle (Cordelia Snow) and Mary (Courtney Williams), two students who have experienced a recent shooting on their college campus, suffer from serious survivor’s guilt. Michelle’s best friend was killed in the attack, and Mary has been forced to transfer schools in an attempt to separate herself from the painful event.

The second part focuses on the story of Alison (Sheila Toomb), Will (Dan Walker), and James (Michael Geib), three college students with different majors and backgrounds who wake up in an abandoned, destroyed library after a school shooting. The exit door is jammed, locking them in together, and as they wait for help, they tell each other about their successes and failures in life. The storylines run intermittently, with Michelle and Mary’s narration functioning as something of a Greek chorus and, without giving away much, both storylines give a different perspective on the horror of a school shooting’s aftermath, culminating in a fairly obvious twist in the end.

There are some seriously touching moments in Afterthoughts–Allison talking about the mother she lost her freshman year, Michelle recalling a friend’s body falling on top of her after the shooter opened fire in her classroom–and all the actors deliver strong, poignant performances, particularly Toomb, Walker, and Snow.

Afterthoughts deals with difficult subject matter, but is laden with the usual clichés--the black-clad loner who just wants to be noticed, the question of God’s existence and benevolence, and the constant reminder of the futility of life. Lawson manages to steer clear of pretension and spends little time trying to be profound, but at the same time, he fails to make the audience look at school shootings and the unyielding violence of today’s youth in a unique way.

There are times when Afterthoughts comes close to breaking new ground--such as when questions are raised about whether or not a person holding a gun is playing God, or whether today’s youth are particularly prone to unleashing violence against their peers--but for the most part, there’s little that separates Afterthoughts from the school shooting episode of Degrassi: The Next Generation.

It is fair to say that Afterthoughts’ formulaic approach to dealing with school shootings might be because students’ reactions are similar--shock, disbelief, depression, and sadness--after going through a shooting, or because they ask similar questions when faced with the reality of life’s instability. Recordings of student interviews after the Virginia Tech massacre are looped prior to the start of the play, and the sentiments expressed during the recordings are brilliantly echoed by Michelle and Mary’s narrative.

But it isn’t enough just to ask why bad things happen to good people, or whether the Millennials turn to violence easily because they believe they are immortal, and what’s frustrating is that Lawson comes close to taking these questions to new heights but somehow misses the mark. When Mary mentions--erroneously, by the way--that humans are the only species that kill each other, Lawson could have done something interesting, like delving deeper into Darwinian philosophy and asking if humans have defied the animalistic survival of the fittest by inventing guns, thus putting power in the hands of the weak as well as the strong. Instead, like most other issues brought up during the play, the animals-vs.-humans argument drops off without much discussion. We know humans are violent, we know school shootings are terrible, and we know life is unpredictable, but there’s more meat to this that Afterthoughts doesn’t dig into, and in the end we’re left with many undeveloped ideas and unsatisfying, unanswered--or even asked--questions.

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