Clay McLeod Chapman must be the cruelest man alive. It was one thing for him to have the victims of the Richmond Fire poetically describe their demises (in a volume of smoke), but that was 1811. And although Hostage Song was raw with the beauty of hope in the face of hopelessness, at least it happened overseas. His latest, part of the monologue-based Pumpkin Pie Show, not only maintains that gallows eloquence, but also strips us of comfortable distances and the easy notion of innocence.
Commencement, which details the aftermath of a school shooting, starts by transforming crayons into bullet casings, describing coloring books as "hemorrhaging Crayola." Though the play lingers--sweetly, at times--on the heavy power of incidental details, like the empty shelves of a library ("How's the library supposed to get those books back?"), it continues to build, bubbling with black humor, using three different narratives to change our perspectives of victims and murderers alike.
Chapman is further cruel--again, in a good way--in that he makes long-time collaborator Hanna Cheek portray all three of Commencement's characters. It's not a question of whether or not Cheek can do so, she's a terrific actor, and at the top of her craft here, but rather a matter of price. It can't be easy to walk away from the tightly clenched jaw and uncontrollable shakes of Sarah Havermeyer, the shooter's mother, especially when the next character you play is the determinedly bright, if not giddy, Julie, whose secret scribblings to the shooter, in the margins of books like Brave New World, offer a different perspective of the shooter. And then there's Mary Keady, one of the mourning mothers, who is rapidly losing her ability to remain prim, demanding that her daughter have the opportunity to graduate and read her valedictory speech. To her, the memory of bullet holes are evoked as the red ribbons of a state fair: "Second place, second place, second place."
Dramatically, though there's no director, Commencement makes all the right choices. The plain white outfit customary for all Pumpkin Pie Shows--like a nurse's--helps to project a lost purity and also gives the characters something else in common. The Under St. Marks space is, itself, tight and appropriately gloomy--its walls are not the only thing exposed in this performance. The interstitial music is well chosen, and in a way that allows the final lines--zingers, all of them ("Kids'll put anything in their mouths")--to haunt us across characters. It also neatly ties all three stories together: let's just say that resolution isn't always a good thing. "We can be anything we want," but what, exactly, do we want?
Given all this, Chapman is perhaps cruelest of all in that The Pumpkin Pie show is only served one month a year, with Commencement ending on Halloween. Don't miss your chance to graduate to some real theater.