Review: ‘Roseburg’ at New City Stage in Philadelphia

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.

Russ Widdall as Bobby Kennedy. Photo by Alex Lowry.
Russ Widdall as Bobby Kennedy. Photo by Alex Lowy from lowyphoto.com

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.

Russ Widdall (Robert Kennedy) and Joshua Tewell (Richard Goodwin). Photo by Alex Lowry.
Russ Widdall (Robert Kennedy) and Joshua Tewell (Richard Goodwin). Photo by Alex Lowy from lowyphoto.com.

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.

6. NCSC, Roseburg-banner (1)

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.

LINK:
A New Play and a New Mission for Ginger Dayle and New City Stage Company in Philadelphia by Deb Miller.

10 COMMENTS

  1. It has been less than a year after this horrific event happened in our small community. Just hearing that someone is capitalizing on the tragedy in our small community with a play only rips open the scab for this already cavernous wound. It doesn’t matter the topic of the play. What matters is the insensitivity. No one has written aND produced plays about any other mass shooting, much less only 9 months later. Tasteless.

    • There have been dozens of plays, movies and TV shows about school shootings. Award-winning playwright William Mastrosimone wrote “Bang Bang You’re Dead” 3 months after Columbine. Do your homework before you make a comment next time.

      Also, free speech exists everywhere except Roseburg, is that so?

      • Bang Bang You’re Dead was written BEFORE Columbine. It focused primarily on a shooting at Thurston High, in Springfield, Oregon. It was premiered AT Thurston High School by many of the victims of the shooting, in deep collaboration with the community. Do your own homework.

  2. As a UCC student I am saddened to see you are reviewing our (less than a year old) tragedy. This is not something that should get a gold star. I understand that you think this is a strong policical statement and a piece of art but the idea of using the worst day our community has ever faced as a form of entertainment is discussing. Everyone is still grieving and this play opens the wound right back up for all of us. Additionally our community pushed very hard for people to not say the shooters name, yet he is now a character in a play. (Check the hashtag #dontsayhisname) A play people have to pay to see. Meaning someone is using a tragedy to make a profit. Do you know the victims names and stories as well as you know the shooters? Think of the most painful day of your life. Add on hours of waiting to learn if any of your family members or friends have just been shot in your at one time inviting classroom. You have lost a classmate and a friend of your fathers. Now imagine people are paying $10-30 to watch for their entertainment. I understand this is viewed as “art” but an artist should be able to showcase their cause without hurting an entire community. I realize this comment seems unending but I do have a final thing to say. Victims have been emailing the director sharing how they feel about the play as respectively as they possibly can. Recounting their stories of listening to people die THEIR FRIENDS DIE and the panic of that day. The responses recived often use the words “fool” and “ignorant”. (These emails are circulating on Facebook. Feel free to check them out for yourself.) While we have the right to use freedom of speech, we also have the right to receive a hint of compassion and be treated as humans grieving. Not just a story from across the country. I know you didn’t write this play, but you are validating it. The shooting at UCC should not be remembered as a political statement. Nor should Roseburg/ the Douglas county community be defined by 15 minutes of horrific violence.

  3. Difficult times and events have always been examined and explored through art.

    America has a dangerous gun-related attitude; “my rights are more important than your lives.” The town is so wrapped up in gun rights that people protested Obama visiting to give condolences–something that all modern presidents have done in the face of tragedy. It may feel “too soon” to talk about this shooting, but with a new high profile gun incident happening every 5 days, it will always feel too soon.

    I live in Roseburg and I am thankful for this play.

  4. ART that is what you want to call it knowing your story line and name is so disrespectful to the town of Roseburg and all their residents. More importantly those who suffered losses of life and injured in the horrible school shooting. The story of Bobby Kennedy and Roseburg makes no sense. They are so different about the use of a gun it shows your stupidity and knowledge of the use of a gun and both shooters. I guess to some people in this country they will do anything no matter how it makes people feel. If you wanted to make a play about gun control, mass shootings I think you had other choices. This is so raw in these people’s lives. It hasn’t even been a year! You should be ashamed of yourself!

  5. The worst parts of all of this are the facts that a person wrote a story without checking in with any member of the community that the play is about. In addition to the author being very rude and disrespectful to the members of the community who have queationed the play and what it is about.
    We have citizens who remember Robert Kennedy’s visit and many more who remember that horrific day in October. They may have added to the play or maybe, just maybe convinced the author to approach it differently.
    The subject is controversial enough. To have this sort of anguish added to it is not necessary and will further the division we are all experiencing lately.

Comments are closed.