Tragic correspondence

Winter Harbor's Letters to the NRA
By MEGAN GRUMBLING  |  June 20, 2007
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Staged before a machine-gunshot-spangled American flag, Letters to the NRA has some strong messages for the nation’s purveyors of gun-lust. The Winter Harbor Theatre Company’s new production is the latest in a series of short topical works by a range of artists, conceived, commissioned, and directed by Caitlin Shetterly (who is also a Phoenix columnist). This new installment of Shetterly’s Letters series, conceived in the aftermath of the Virginia Tech shootings, is a collection of meditations on America’s cultural affair with the gun.

The tenor of the show’s writing ranges quite widely. At times the tone is chilling, as when Tim Collins portrays Cho Seung-Hui in a hoodie and the glow of a laptop, composing his play Richard McBeef (a brutal depiction of domestic unrest leaked to AOL by a former classmate of Cho's after the shootings). Sometimes the show swerves into delightfully pointed comedy: Craig Pospisil’s Guns Don’t Kill gives us Cherie Mason as an aged grade-school teacher who comes to class wielding a .22 to protect her students and the Constitution; and Johnathan McClain provides a deliciously quick dose of slapstick in a Bush mask as he dances through a pile of used rifle cartridges and literally shoots himself in the foot.

Elsewhere, and more frequently, Letters goes for narratives of tragedy and pathos — Amy Fox’s Counting, in which a sister relates the figures of her brother’s distress in milligrams, cartridges, names on a list in red; Pospisil’s A Quiet Empty Life, which presents a Virginia Tech widow’s despair as narrated by her dead husband. The fraught emotion of such accounts is sometimes quite affecting, but a little of that goes a long way — particularly for an audience that is already a choir to the cause — and at times the show veers toward the maudlin.

Better are its more nuanced and unexpected takes on gun culture. In Collins’s superb NRA Convention, the virtuoso actor slips in and out of a dozen different characters encountered at a gun show, in a fascinating and scary work of theater-as-reportage. Letters to the NRA is at its best in such pieces, when it foregoes pathos and instead offers acute, uncommon, and genuinely disarming perspectives on just how sanguine America is with its guns.

Letters To The NRA | conceived and directed by Caitlin Shetterly | Produced by the Winter Harbor Theatre Company | at the St. Lawrence Arts and Community Center in Portland | through June 23 | 207.775.3174

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