In this fictional town, the consequences of a school shooting are all too real
For playwrights, it’s usually thrilling when their work ends up resonating with issues playing out in the news of the day. But Jennifer Barclay would prefer that her new drama “Ripe Frenzy” didn’t feel as relevant and raw as it does at this very moment. That’s because the story centers on a woman grappling with the seismic aftermath of a school shooting — an event that’s become depressingly routine in America.
Since New Repertory Theatre first announced it would be producing Barclay’s play, the country has endured the deadliest mass shooting in US history at a concert in Las Vegas last fall and is now grappling with the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., in which 17 students, teachers, and coaches were murdered.
“It’s become the norm. It’s terrifying, and I think it involves some degree of just keeping a cushion between yourself and reality,” says Barclay in a phone interview from her home in the Washington, D.C., area. “You just keep thinking that it’s at a distance from you. I’m sure folks in Parkland felt that, too, until [last] Wednesday.”
Beginning this weekend, New Repertory Theatre and the Boston Center for American Performance will premiere “Ripe Frenzy” at Studio One at Boston University, from Feb. 24 through March 11. Winner of the National New Play Network’s 2016 Smith Prize for Political Theater, the play revolves around town historian and narrator Zoe as she recounts the days leading up to a devastating shooting in her hometown of Tavistown, N.Y.
On stage, the audience watches as Zoe, her best friends Felicia and Miriam, and their three children prepare for the school’s semi-annual production of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” a play about life, death, and family that’s deeply entwined into the fabric of their community.
With “Ripe Frenzy,” Barclay didn’t want to wade into the gun control debate. Instead, she tried to approach the issue of mass shootings from what she calls “the perpetuation of this epidemic through both social media and journalistic media.”
“What are we doing by being complicit, by getting caught up in this tornado around each of these events?” she wonders. “How are we talking about them that ends up putting these events on a pedestal that then perpetuates them?”
She references the No Notoriety campaign, which urges media outlets to limit repeating the names and likenesses of killers responsible for mass shootings; to refuse to broadcast statements, photos, videos, and/or manifestos made by those individuals; and to elevate the names and images of the victims.
“Repeating the name of the shooter glorifies the killer and then makes it more appealing to the next person who craves that attention and craves that notoriety and who might already be leaning in the direction of doing something like this,” Barclay says. “It becomes this frenzy that is contagious, a sense of competition and a sense of standing upon the previous shooter’s shoulders, which I think is happening in concert with how quickly news spreads now and how sensationalized the news can be.”
Barclay, who has a 5-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son, also wanted to explore the issue of mass shootings through the lens of motherhood.
Indeed, as a parent, she contemplates the idea of nature vs. nurture — how she’s shaping her children — every day. “Something that has been a real revelation to me after having kids is how fully formed kids arrive. They’re not a blank slate by any means. My daughter in particular has such a big personality, and it was completely 100 percent present from her first minute of life. So what is our part in guiding our children?”
She gained key insights by reading “A Mother’s Reckoning,” the book written by Sue Klebold, a mother of one of the Columbine shooters, Dylan Klebold. “Her memoir is really powerful, because she was really trying to examine what she missed and perhaps her own culpability,” Barclay says. “I think she was really interrogating instead of getting defensive. And her hope was that her interrogation of what his childhood was leading up to the event might help other mothers in seeing any warning signs.”
Barclay wrote most of “Ripe Frenzy” at the MacDowell Colony, the famed artists’ retreat in Peterborough, N.H., the town upon which Wilder modeled the fictional setting of Grover’s Corners. “I was writing my play just a few cabins over from where Thornton Wilder wrote ‘Our Town,’” Barclay says. His play “depicted the supposedly quintessential American town at the time. And my play is looking at the mass shooting epidemic as being a new norm in America, using ‘Our Town’ as a framework to look at questions about that new normal.”
For “Ripe Frenzy” director Bridget Kathleen O’Leary, who grew up in New Hampshire, where “Our Town” was “part of the cultural zeitgeist,” there are rich thematic connections between the two plays.
“‘Our Town’ is about a community of people who are deeply entwined together, but so wrapped up in the ritual of their daily lives they don’t stop and appreciate all of the things that enrich our lives,” O’Leary says. “And one of the themes of ‘Ripe Frenzy’ is really about how we don’t notice each other because we’re so stuck in our phones and stuck in the world of media. The constant access to information and news all the time has made it difficult for us to witness the subtleties of human behavior anymore.”
In the wake of the tragedy in Florida, New Rep issued a statement saying it would continue with the production of “Ripe Frenzy” as part of a mission “to present plays that speak powerfully to the vital ideas of our time,” with the hope that the play “can help progress the dialogue about these tragedies.”
“It wasn’t like all of a sudden, oh wow, the play just became really relevant. Because it was super relevant when we chose it,” says O’Leary. “Now it’s just going to be more in the forefront of people’s minds when they see it, and it’s made us all very aware that what we’re doing continues to have meaning.”
Presented by New Repertory Theatre and Boston Center for American Performance, Feb. 24-March 11. At the Boston University College of Fine Arts, Studio One, 855 Commonwealth Ave. Tickets $18-$35, 617-923-8487, www.newrep.org