Quantum Theatre’s “The Gun Show (Can We Talk About This?)” offers an open dialogue about hard topics in politically polarized times.

By Nick Eustis

Photo by Jason Snyder

A solitary man walks onto the stage, clad in flannel and denim. The set is stark but detailed. Oil paintings cover the walls like wallpaper, their subjects staring at a desk with a binder, which contains the play’s script, and a cardboard box filled with personal photos and memorabilia, set atop a stool.

The man walks behind the desk, opens the binder, and says, soberly, “Something happened 16 years ago.” He locks eyes with a middle-aged woman in the audience, sitting alone. The woman is E.M. Lewis, and this is the beginning of her play, “The Gun Show (Can We Talk About This?).”

Quantum Theatre brought Lewis’ work to the CCAC Allegheny Campus for a five-night engagement from Feb. 20 through 24. A 60-minute, one-act, one-man play, “The Gun Show” starred Andrew William Smith and was directed by Sheila McKenna, both Quantum Theatre veterans.

Quantum Theatre, according to its mission statement, “is a company of progressive, professional artists dedicated to producing intimate and sophisticated theatrical experiences in uncommon settings, exploring universal themes of truth, beauty, and human relationships in unexpected ways.”

Lewis is a multi-award winning playwright, teacher, and librettist. She was born and raised in the rolling hills of rural Oregon, and lives there today, after stints in Los Angeles and Princeton, New Jersey.

Rural Oregon figures prominently in “The Gun Show,” primarily because the cultural attitude toward guns there is more positive than in many cities, like Pittsburgh. The play wrestles with Lewis’ complicated feelings about guns by telling five stories from her life through the male actor on stage. She calls these tales her “gun stories.”

Several stories are unsettling. In one, the playwright mentions a time she visited New York City from Princeton, and became lost in Penn Station, one of the city’s main transit hubs. She approached two police officers and asked for directions. One of the officers responded by placing his hand on his firearm and saying, “I’m gonna pistol whip the next person who asks me that. Read the [expletive] signs.”

Lewis tempers this fear and sadness with joy. She describes falling in love with her husband after an afternoon on an Oregon lakefront with some rifles, a couple hundred rounds of ammunition, a few six-packs and shooting into the distance. It’s this cognitive dissonance of love and hate, joy and fear that both individuals and the collective culture have about guns that Lewis examines.

“The Gun Show” is unusual in the way it subverts the usual relationship between playwright, actor, and audience. In a traditional play, the playwright is fully invisible, with the actors communicating the writer’s thoughts and concepts to the audience, but in “The Gun Show,” the relationship is turned on its head. The actor speaks directly to the playwright, asking her questions and even openly mocking her at times. Though she never speaks, Lewis is able to communicate back to the audience through her body language, gestures, and facial reactions. She becomes a character in her own story.

The show ended with a 15-minute talkback where audience members were encouraged to share their experiences with guns. The play’s subtitle,“Can We Talk About This?” signifies one of the its key points, which is that, as Lewis says in the play, “the conversation has been stolen from normal, ordinary people in the middle,” and that having an open dialogue about guns in these polarized times is more important than ever.

Visit quantumtheatre.com for more information about upcoming shows and performances.