Roseburg examines two incidents that took place a few miles, and several decades, apart. Yet they’re connected in a tragic way, through America’s fixation on guns. And while the show is focused on history, it couldn’t be more relevant.
Directed and conceived by Ginger Dayle, and co-written by Dayle with the members of the Voices for New City Ensemble (who also appear in the show), Roseburg is a kind of documentary theatre, interspersing news footage, re-enacted statements by figures connected to the events, and dramatic scenes.
The play begins with projected footage of an event from this past October, when a student at Umpqua Community College, outside Roseburg, Oregon, opened fire in a classroom, killing nine and injuring seven others. It was the deadliest mass shooting ever in Oregon, though less than a year later it’s been eclipsed in the public memory by even deadlier shootings.
Dayle contrasts the Umpqua shooting with another event that happened in Roseburg: a speech on May 27, 1968 by presidential candidate Senator Robert F. Kennedy calling for stricter gun control limits. Kennedy was met with heckling and hostility from the largely rural crowd. The next day, he lost the Oregon primary to Eugene McCarthy. Less than two weeks later Kennedy was dead, another victim of gun violence.
Roseburg presents scenes depicting the Umpqua killer, Chris Harper-Mercer, as his behavior becomes increasingly troublesome and bizarre in the days leading up to the killing. We also meet victims and survivors telling graphic stories of the rampage; these speeches are vivid and gripping.
Interspersed with Harper-Mercer’s story are scenes of the days leading up to Kennedy’s speech. We see Kennedy’s aides urging him to avoid controversy; meanwhile Kennedy, increasingly disturbed by rampant violence and looking for a way to set himself apart from the other candidates, feels that he must speak his mind.
Mixed in with these storylines, we get moments that examine the gun control debate from other viewpoints. There’s a National Rifle Association video, plus a speech by NRA official Wayne LaPierre (played by Mark Marano). There’s testimony – in speeches delivered directly to the audience – from both NRA supporters and NRA opponents. (Dayle and her company they treat both sides of the issue with respect and compassion, though it’s pretty clear which side they’re on.)
Roseburg will give you a lot to think about. But that’s one of its weaknesses: there’s so much to talk about regarding guns in America that Roseburg doesn’t know when to stop. It takes a lot of diversions to discuss things that, while interesting in relation to the larger gun control debate, are only peripherally related to what happened in Roseburg.
For instance, in one scene gun control advocate Sarah Brady (played by Julia McIntyre) relates how she actually bought a gun herself – a Remington rifle for her son, who loved hunting. It’s a thought-provoking, ironic anecdote, but it brings the show to a halt. So does the vignette that concludes act one: a crime victim turned gun advocate angrily screaming her opinions at the audience. Moments like this don’t strengthen the play or make it more intriguing; instead they repeat overly familiar arguments and make a long play seem even longer.
Fortunately, many of the dramatic scenes are compelling, and Dayle gives them a dynamic staging. Russ Widdall, who played Kennedy a few seasons back in New City Stage’s RFK, returns to the role here, and his comfort and confidence in the role pays off. This time around he plays Kennedy as a troubled warrior, motivated by concern for his country, his campaign, and his family and friends. It’s an involving take on an iconic figure.
The rest of the characters are played by the eight members of the Voices for New City Ensemble. Each actor plays several roles – from LaPierre and Brady to Rosey Grier (André M. Evers) to the shooter’s mother (Kayla Tarpley) – and they all put a lot of variety into their portrayals. The best performance comes from Jackie DiFerdinando, who plays Harper-Mercer with a guttural grunt and a panicked expression.
Lucas Fendlay created both the video projections, which blend a wide array of recent and vintage footage in ingenious ways, and the sound design, which uses a soft but insistent electronic pulse to underscore the scenes. Eric Baker’s lighting helps to set the scene chillingly during the scenes involving the shooter.
If you’re angry about what’s been happening in America during the last few weeks, you’ll leave Roseburg even angrier – and more despondent over whether the viewpoint Robert Kennedy advocated will ever pervade. Roseburg doesn’t offer any answers. But by juxtaposing events that took place 47 years apart, Dayle and company make the audience question how much has changed, and whether that change will ever happen.
Running Time: 2 hours and 45 minutes, including an intermission.
Roseburg plays July 7-31, 2016, at New City Stage Company, performing at the Second Stage at the Adrienne – 2030 Sansom Street, 2nd floor, in Philadelphia, PA. For tickets, call the box office at (215) 563-7500, or purchase them online.
A New Play and a New Mission for Ginger Dayle and New City Stage Company in Philadelphia by Deb Miller.