The nightmare of survivor’s guilt can be a prolonged, excruciating, never-ending darkness that is often endured by the perpetrators loved ones just as much as the victims’ families as lives are left in shambles. Everyone that is left to pick up the pieces asks the same question…WHY?
“Exit Wounds” answers that question nobly and well-reasoned, but, as with the false optimism of closure, sometimes the survivors learn that there is rarely any such relief, no less answers that can explain a thing.
In playwright Wendy Graf’s own words “Exit Wounds” is not a play about guns. It is not a platform nor a lecture on gun control. It is a story about a scarred family learning to heal.”
Truer words were never spoken as Graf, the Gold Medallion winner of the Moss Hart and Kitty Carlisle New Play Initiative for 2019 takes a hard and harrowing look at an all too familiar tragedy from today’s headlines.
Graf takes pop culture, dysfunctional families and the Talmud as influences that pepper “Exit Wounds” with a worldview that is not cynical, but pragmatic. The play is never preachy nor does it presume to lecture. It doesn’t entertain lightly for those wanting a cheerful evening out at the theater, much like Branden Jacobs-Jenkins “Gloria” did for Chicago audiences at the Goodman Theater. For the audience, “Exit Wounds” is a harrowing, dark and heavy ninety minutes that will endure the same pain, yearning for reconciliation and grasping for understanding just like the characters onstage.
The play gets right to the point as Linda, a sad and lonely hoarder hears a knock on the door from someone who claims that she used to know him. It turns out to be her son Matt, who she has not seen or heard from in years. An awkward and tense reunion follows as Matt finally explains why he has come. He has a family of his own now and his son Danny is on a fast track to a dead end that is all too familiar to them both. Matt needs Linda’s help in doing what they can to turn Danny’s life around and reluctantly agree to work together but not to reveal their shared secret of their relationship to Danny.
After Linda and Danny meet and Danny takes up residence in the spare bedroom, they butt heads in a generational impasse at first, then ultimately a shared past of an unspeakable crime is revealed.
Will there be forgiveness for things better left forgotten or a confrontation that will continue the pain that may possibly free the three of them from the invisible chains that hold them back from a better future together?
Director caryn desai ably keeps things brisk and moving in blocking out a drama that could easily stagnate in lesser hands but thanks to her, never does. Her direction is crisp and keeps the momentum going and really ramps up even faster to the fiery conclusion as hidden truths are revealed in pivotal stages and expert pacing. It works completely on Yuri Okahana-Benson’s excellent split level set design that cleverly utilizes an upstairs, living room and a back porch as the playing space. Solid lighting design by Donna Ruzika enhances the mood.
The trio ensemble includes a standout performance by Suanne Spoke as Linda, the long-suffering protagonist who shoulders the blame for all that has happened and must ultimately forgive herself and accept what has happened. At first, she is not someone that appears to be worth rooting for but by the play’s end, the audience is cheering for her the loudest. She deserves that support as the character and in just how well she pulls it off in her portrayal of a broken woman who tries her level best to put a good face on things as best as she can. Her final monologue that encapsulates the pain of the play will bring tears to your eyes.
Michael Polak as Matt shines with an intensity that is tantamount to shouldering an unwanted burden for decades. He’s wracked under the weight of it with revulsion and guilt, impotently wishing that he could have somehow changed the inevitable path that his family took and in the process nearly destroying all chances of a normal relationship with his son. His paraphrasing of The Torah scripture “Whoever saves a single life is considered by scripture to have saved the whole world.” in the first act sets the entire tone of what drives his performance as the tortured father. Excellent work in a role that could be unsympathetic but never is for a single moment. Well done!
Danny, as portrayed by Hayden Kharrazi, is a shining jewel. It’s hard to believe that this young actor can emote such anguish so well and enduring, as the immortal Bard intoned “….some have greatness thrust upon them”. Danny has a greatness that he never asked for and the horror of accepting the awful truth is practically more than he can bear. Keep an eye on Mr. Khazzari. He’ll go far.
The team of caryn desai and Wendy Graf are to be particularly congratulated on a beautiful and powerful production that accomplishes the near impossible; are we there at the theater to be entertained or educated? In this case, both. What you WILL be is moved, appalled, enlightened, angered and plumbed to the depths of feeling from a work that is topical, moral and more importantly, unforgettable.
It’s guaranteed with certainty that you WILL be talking about this long after you leave the theater. Kudos to all.
“Exit Wounds” runs through September 10th at the Beverly O’Neill Theater at the International City Theatre 330 E Seaside Way, Long Beach, CA 90802. Tickets are available here.
All production photos by Kayte Deimoa