Based on a real-life 1974 incident in upstate New York, Bonnie Culver’s quasi-docudrama about a high school kid who wigs out and kills eight people in a shooting spree seems more viable as an educational tool than as a theatrical event. At least that’s the way it plays in this subpar production, which plods earnestly through stream-of-consciousness scenes that spring from the mind of the young killer, who seems as baffled as everyone else by his actions. But despite the insensitive treatment, this is the kind of social drama that issue-minded auds like to talk — and fight — about. Colleges and high schools, book now.
Interesting backstory on this one: Culver grew up in Olean, N.Y., the town where the actual events of her play took place. On Dec. 30, 1974, she was trying on wedding dresses at Bradner’s department store, across the parking lot from Olean High School where the sniper took up his position after killing the school custodian to gain access to the building. By a stroke of luck, she had come out of the store and was driving home when the marksman began picking off shoppers making their way to their cars.
The trauma stayed with her, only now surfacing in an imperfect but thoughtful sociodrama that tries to make sense of what turned out to be the first of dozens of school shootings, most of which went unnoticed by the public until the Columbine massacre.
None of this is told in the play, which is confined to the jail cell where 17-year-old Anthony Vaccaro (John O’Brien) is awaiting trial, his body in a state of suspended animation, his mind buzzing with disordered memories of the events in his life that led to this place. The rest of the cast occupy high-backed seats set against a side wall, awaiting their turns to dramatize the disconnected scenes that loop through Anthony’s thoughts.
Under Adam Hill’s tone-deaf direction, thesps play it big and go for the hot emotions, missing the mood-driven nuances of scribe’s cool expressionistic style. Although O’Brien lacks the technical chops to convey Anthony’s chaotic inner life, he at least understands that the kid has removed himself from this world and beamed himself up to outer space. And while he may not be able to kick a stage prop with much authority, tyro thesp puts some conviction in Anthony’s bald explanation for his crime — “I had to do it” — and in his anguished admission: “I don’t know why.”
Had Culver chosen to manipulate the known facts of the case, she might have trumped up some explosive scenario to explain Anthony’s homicidal rampage. Instead, like some disciplined reporter assigned to do a profile of Hamlet, she examines all the sources of his discontent: Parents who love their sensitive and withdrawn son, but don’t understand or value his differentness; a best friend whose suicidal despair reflects Anthony’s own sense of social alienation; a girlfriend who outgrows her adolescent rebelliousness and leaves the gawky boy to muddle through on his own; and a priest who can’t offer his favorite altar boy any comforting answers to his questions of faith.
Drawing no conclusions and making no judgments, Culver does the hard thing — lays out the facts and lets the audience figure it out. Or, rather, to come to the same conclusion Anthony does: that there are no answers to some mysteries. Which is why they haunt us so.