I taught high school for almost forty years and retired in 2015. In all that time, we never had such a thing as an “active shooter drill.” Oh, we had lockdown drills, yes, but active shooters? Unthinkable. Sadly, though, in today’s America—such a short time later!—active shooter drills have become the modern equivalent to those “duck and cover” drills in the 50s that were supposed to help in case of nuclear attack. They are ubiquitous, and they may or may not do what they are designed to do.
Which brings me to Broken Nose Theatre’s first offering of this season, the world premiere of Eric Reyes Loo’s This Is Only a Test, a dark exploration of these drills and the way they function both in theory and in the real world.
There is obviously (and very unfortunately) a need for kids to know what to do in case of an emergency like a shooter in the building. But is turning out the light, locking the door, and hiding out of sight enough? Loo doesn’t pretend he has the answer, but his play bluntly poses the question of how far we are willing to go to protect our children. Following in the footsteps of right wing politicians who want to arm teachers—what?—the play’s exaggerated action postulates that, when it comes down to it, we may be doing our kids no favors by stopping short of teaching them active self-defense against active shooters.
Directed by Toma Tavares Langston, This Is Only a Test looks at one underfunded city high school that somehow becomes a testing ground of a startup security company that wants to teach kids how to take down the shooter if they are confronted by one. The Principal (RjW Mays) is wary from the outset…couldn’t this sort of thing end up causing physical and psychological harm to the students in her charge? But Christopher M. Walsh’s imposing security expert, Peter, manipulates her into supporting him if not fully committing to the concept.
Walsh, with his John Goodman-like physique and deep voice, is indeed an imposing person. And if Peter intimidates the Principal, he totally freaks out the students. Entering with bluster and startling gunshots—blanks, he assures them afterward, as if anyone who has heard about Alec Baldwin’s unfortunate incident could ever be reassured by that—he unnerves them from the first moments. (The fact that none of this would ever pass muster in a real school district is either immaterial or exactly the point; you decide.)
The representative students here are mostly juniors, with one exception. Zhanna Albertini’s Selma is a strong, popular, intelligent, college-bound girl with extremely supportive parents. (Mays and Walsh portray all of the parents, including one tour de force scene in which they have to keep switching among them.) Contrasting Selma is the one freshman, an extremely nervous girl named Lenore (Sophia Vitello) who calls herself an actress even though she has never made the cast of a play. The two boys are a football jock named Wynn (Austyn Williamson) and a very gay—by his own statement—actor named Kramer (Graham Helfrick). (Why these boys are only known by—or perhaps are named with—what appear to be last names is unclear.) Of course, Peter decides to make mousy, terrified Lenore the first “volunteer” for his harsh brand of learning by doing…a sign of what is to come.
The students, forced to confront both violence and their own vulnerabilities, are irrevocably altered by the drills, sometimes in terrifying ways. Loo wants us to see that the fears of adults can and will damage our children, but he goes overboard with some of his character changes. They are not limited to the kids, either: a couple of the adults, too, change rather abruptly; still of the four kids, not one of them escapes unscathed from Peter’s regimen of “self-defense” drills.
Langston and the cast do their best with a script full of choppy, too-short scenes, some of which seem to take literally only a couple of minutes to play, and totally unearned character changes. There are some nice moments—bonding between two extremely unlike students, for example—but there are also violent actions that go far beyond realistic or necessary. This new play has some promise, and it takes on a target I’ve never seen addressed, but it definitely still needs work. It plays at the Den Theatre through Mar 12. Tickets are available here.