The hardest-learned lesson of adulthood is that tragedy is real. Not in the Shakespearean sense, perhaps, but in the vein of unexpected pain coming at moments when one is unprepared for its arrival.
National incidents with high death tolls are tragedies, none more harrowing than the epidemic of school shootings that has flared throughout the country.
This Flat Earth, Lindsey Ferrentino’s kind and miraculously empathetic play at Playwrights Horizons, looks at the wake of such a tragedy through its survivors. In this play, no one listens to the children, not really, even when they are screaming and begging for help.
Julie, played by Ella Kennedy Davis, and Zander, performed by Ian Saint-Germain, are two survivors of a school shooting that has become a media firestorm, but all they want is for the world to keep spinning.
For everyone else, it is as if the world has stopped and is trying to take a breath.
For Julie and Zander, however, it is as if the world is leaving them further behind than it ever could have before.
Julie’s very visible PTSD makes even the simplest noises a nightmare waiting to happen, while Zander just wants to keep going in order to make it past the river of dread that he feels.
The adults seem to have no clue about what to do and just how to make things right, never fully supporting their students.
Julie’s father, Dan, performed with a clumsy fatherliness by Lucas Papaelias, is trying to be as kind as he can be to other parents, especially to the mother of one of the dead, Cassie Beck’s character Lisa, and his own daughter.
Dan is portrayed here not just as some bumbling fool of a dad but as a well-meaning, flawed father who has assumed the little authority he has over his life. He is also a real father, not a papier-mâché paternal stand-in who vaguely does fatherly things.
The world needs more dads like Dan, flaws notwithstanding. Lisa, too, is a deeply hurt individual whose grief boils over into depression, self-loathing and a willingness to make sure anyone who “does not belong” stays away. Unfortunately, the question of who belongs becomes much more important than anyone immediately realizes.
Upstairs is Cloris, vividly colored by Lynda Gravátt, a former cellist far into old age and not a big fan of kids.
Ferrentino cleverly avoids the stereotype of the wise old lady by making Cloris just as sad, hurt and lonely as any other person one might encounter in the production’s world.
Her purpose in the story, while worryingly bordering on cliche, is a beautiful one, and the way she revives Julie’s confused spirit is a reassuring one, albeit temporary. At the end, even Cloris cannot make adulthood seem any better, no matter how truthfully funny she is.
Rebecca Taichman, the show’s director, has taken pains to make sure the characters do not fall into the traps set by the use of “wise adults” wherein their opinion is borderline godly.
She has also set up a world that is ever so mildly a fable, where every daughter is a potential Julie and every father is a potential Dan. Unfortunately, that world is also full of Lisas and Clorises, with just as mixed results.
Dane Laffrey’s two-floor set gives a pleasantly gritty feel to the picturesque seaside town the audience can imagine just outside those apartment windows, and Christopher Akerlind’s masterful lighting turns music into light and the twilight into wide-eyed optimism.
The design team is arguably one of the best working today. The team is rounded out by costume designer Paloma Young, whose costumes are some of the most realistic for young people yet to be seen on stage.
Cellist Christine H. Kim provides a wonderful soundscape that fills the room with chills and sighs when Cloris begins to describe the power of the cello and its similarity to the human voice.
Ferrentino’s greatest accomplishment may perhaps be the way she has written the children of the play, who speak like actual people and not sitcom stereotypes of children.
Julie and Zander have very real problems and wants, which they are able to articulate just as two young people on the cusp of adulthood would.
It also makes the tragedy that starts the This Flat Earth all the more mournful, as the kids who perished were just as real as Julie and Zander, now never going past the age of 13.
Ferrentino knows that kids are the future, and she does not shy away from showing that, in kind and cruel ways, as a writer of her caliber is able to.