Written by a 19-year-old playwright, “The Why” is a remarkably mature work, primarily because it’s far more interested in asking questions than it is in answering them. College junior Victor Kaufold takes on the hot-button issue of school shootings and delivers an episodic, highly expressive, contemplative play, equally balanced between satire and sadness. Blank Theatre Co. artistic director Daniel Henning casts the play perfectly and puts forth an effective production that never forces a message on the audience and puts a premium on emotional honesty.
The play begins with a capricious prologue, where four characters — movie stereotypes all — confront each other in an armed showdown. The lightness gives way quickly, though, as the next scene sets up the central story. A teenager named Robert (Fred Savage from “The Wonder Years”) talks with his jailhouse therapist, Dr. Russell (Steve Lipinsky). Robert, we discover, recently opened fire in his school, killing three and injuring another. But he’s no raving lunatic — he’s a thoughtful, highly perceptive kid.
Kaufold intelligently holds off on giving much detail of Robert’s crime. But it’s impossible not to ask almost from the start what would have spurred this bright teenager to such a heinous deed. There are little hints of adolescent problems, but never anything that stands out. What happened, and how it happened, can be easily described but are ultimately irrelevant. What’s important, and so fundamentally elusive, is “the why.”
Everywhere Kaufold turns his satirical eye, somebody is willing to offer an answer. The usual suspects point fingers at each other: it’s guns, it’s the pervasive violence of society, it’s Satan. An adult playwright creates a ridiculously exaggerated version of high school, but decides he really wants a happy ending and easily maneuvers his story in that direction. The press, depicted here through a tabloid show called “Murder News,” is obviously more interested in titillating the audience than informing it.
Kaufold deserves significant credit for pulling back on his satire, even questioning it, with one character claiming to be offended by the unfairness of the portrayals. And the talented, versatile performers here — in addition to the surprisingly good Savage and Lipinsky, there’s James Marsters (from “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”) and Antoinette Spolar — move easily between the hyperbolic and more realistic scenes, all of them demonstrating fine comic timing and an easygoing rapport with the audience. Kaufold smartly keeps the structure loose, setting up his thematic climax, where, in a brief, poetic scene, a faceless figure walks down the center of the stage, covered in a cape, the personification of that slippery “why.”
“The Why” isn’t perfect. It struggles to find its ending, and some of the satire is blunt in a juvenile way. But, without question, it’s an impressive debut, and it nails the central, complex sentiment: a despondent, helpless confusion.