Review: ‘On the Exhale’ Addresses Grief and the Attraction of an Assault Rifle

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Marin Ireland in “On the Exhale” at the Roundabout’s Black Box Theater.

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Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Marin Ireland is a delicate conduit for raw emotions. Watching her deliver the hourlong monologue “On the Exhale,” Martín Zimmerman’s carefully wrought study of a mother undone by loss, you half expect her to crack and shatter before your eyes.

With her pale skin and fine, Pre-Raphaelite features, this actress hardly seems built for the depths of anguish she delivers with such regularity and expertise on New York stages. Yet it’s the illusion she conveys of transparency — as if she were indeed made of spun glass — that lets us perceive so clearly a blinding darkness within.

Not for nothing was she chosen as a central player in the New York premieres of the British dramatist Sarah Kane’s “4:48 Psychosis” and “Blasted.” Ms. Kane’s almost unbearable chronicles of rock-bottom despair require careful handling, and Ms. Ireland was an assured guide to realms of nihilism we would normally shirk from visiting.

“On the Exhale,” which approaches the subject of American gun violence from a startlingly original perspective, doesn’t pack the blistering power of Ms. Kane’s work; it’s too consciously composed for such impact. (This is probably just as well, since the play, which opened last night as part of the Roundabout Underground season, has been staged in the tiny, low-ceilinged Black Box Theater, where the audience is always within scorching distance of the performers.)

But as directed with characteristic sensitivity by the ever-busy Leigh Silverman, “On the Exhale” provides a welcome opportunity to see an artist of Ms. Ireland’s caliber — alone on a blank stage, impeccably lighted by Jen Schriever — take a character through the stages of grief. As the script charts that progression, things don’t go strictly according to Elisabeth Kübler-Ross.

Mr. Zimmerman, a young playwright just coming into his own, carefully staggers his revelations as to the causes and consequences of his narrator’s singular approach to mourning, so I’m going to tread carefully in describing the plot. It is probably my obligation, though, in this age of trigger warnings, to say that “On the Exhale” was inspired by the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings of 2012. Ms. Ireland portrays a university professor and single mother (identified only as Woman) whose child is killed during such an attack.

That event is by no means described in sensationalist detail here. On the contrary, it’s partly not being able to know exactly what her son went through in his final moments that pushes the Woman into an obsession that comes to dominate every aspect of her existence.

Since she is not allowed access to the shooter or his family, she comes to focus on a weapon he used, an assault rifle. Its identical twin is easily purchased at a rural store that’s a short drive from her home.

That gun becomes a means of deliverance, and not in the ways you might expect, though Mr. Zimmerman flirts with the obvious denouement. What’s being portrayed is a bizarre attempt at unconditional empathy in which an inveterate gun hater not only takes up arms but also seems to transfer her very identity to a lethal weapon.

It’s a brave and bold premise for a play. And if “On the Exhale” never quite fulfills its potential to unsettle, it’s because Mr. Zimmerman’s authorial hand is too much in evidence — meticulously setting up the back story and balancing patterns of imagery.

Ms. Ireland, on the other hand, never seems detached from her fraught character, which is all the more impressive since some sort of consoling, intelligent detachment is what the Woman longs for. When we first meet her, she is smiling, ingratiating, hoping to be perceived as intelligent and trustworthy, and slightly on the defensive, not unlike a teacher on the first day of class.

Even then, though, we sense the turmoil gnawing at the composure. A simple tripping over a word becomes a flare signal of distress. And when the Woman remembers holding a rifle in her arms for the first time, the consummation that occurs, as Ms. Ireland registers it, feels rapturous and truly unholy.

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