"Friends with Guns," a play about guns and gun violence, makes you think and may challenge some of your core beliefs. What if the gun owners in America were also the liberals? How would that change the debate on gun control? It's one of many questions playwright Stephanie Alison Walker asks us to consider in her very provocative play. And director Randee Trabitz says that it's okay if the play doesn't have the answers. "This play is a conversation," Trabitz says.
Walker hopes it can also be the starting point to talk about gun violence and many issues confronting us in America today.
"There is a lot I was trying to do with the play." the playwright said. "One of the main things I wanted to look at was ...our own inherent capacity for violence. When it goes unchecked. When we don't own it And this rage that is so prevalent because we feel so powerless. That is what drove me to write the play. Everybody raging at each other and it not making any difference."
But she realized something we all may have thought at some point, especially since the 2016 election. "I've been afraid to listen to the other side," Walker said.
Big issues like immigration, income inequality, white supremacy and mass incarceration all need attention. But the issue of gun control feels--no pun intended--like the most explosive and the hardest to talk about. The line has been drawn between gun owners and gun haters. But Friends with Guns presents another way into the discussion. What if your liberal friends are the ones with the guns?
The characters she created to talk through these issues are eminently relatable as they struggle to make it through their daily lives with some degree of integrity and peace. The play begins on the playground as Shannon and Leah, two harried moms, meet and immediately bond. Their budding friendship soon includes their husbands Danny and Josh, and that is where things take a turn.
One couple owns guns and the other is vehemently opposed to gun ownership and gun owners. Suddenly, assumptions are being challenged and things get sticky.
Through her characters, Walker sets out the arguments both for and against gun ownership. We've heard them all before, but this time we are so comfortable with the characters that you find yourself swinging back and forth depending upon who is talking. Leah, the wife and gun owner is, in every other way, a veritable Earth Mother, totally understanding and empathic. She feels your problems. She speaks in a soothing voice. She is comfortable in her own skin. She reassures her new friend Shannon, an overstressed mom barely managing her insecurities, that it's okay to lift the curtain and look behind it at the things that might scare you. She assures her that her life won't change if she examines and faces her fears.
Leah's husband Danny, also an avid gun owner, is equally charming and likable, and so reasonable. How is it that your not owning a gun doesn't make me angry, but my owning one infuriates you, he asks Josh as they try to talk through their differences.
While the fight put up by the anti-gun family is familiar, and the statistics they quote are correct, making the gun owners a liberal couple in every other way, forces you to acknowledge that maybe, just maybe, not every gun owner is a MAGA-hatted Trump supporter. Suddenly, the husband who is outraged that his wife is becoming friendly with, and empowered by, guns feels he is losing his grip on their reality. "We always agreed on the big issues," he cries. You can feel his pain. It's like your life partner suddenly has changed the rules of your marriage. Instead of playing Scrabble now she's playing Grand Theft Auto. And loving it.
So a play about guns also becomes a play about feminism, family dynamics, male dominance, self-realization, self-defense, companionship, community and a whole lot more. And things don't go well. But, as Walker says, "A gun doesn't have to go off to tear people apart.'' It does make it a little harder to know how to feel at the end of the play as so many issues are brought up but none of them are resolved. And it seems like a stretch that Shannon would bring a loaded gun into their home after one day at the shooting range without ever having a conversation with her husband, who has become violently unglued and threatening about her new outlook on life.
But when the lights came up, the real world had intruded. While we were watching the play, a gunman espousing white supremacist beliefs had entered two mosques in New Zealand, yelling anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant views, and mowed down 50 innocent Muslims during Friday prayer. He broadcast the attack with a camera on his helmet live-streaming to Facebook. It was a slap of reality that perhaps confirmed what had been gnawing at me during this engrossing depiction of the gun debate.
In the end, guns kill thousands in the United States each year, in mass shootings and everyday violence and suicide. Walker makes a strong case for talking through these issues while humanizing those on the other side. Solutions will not be easy to find. But they certainly aren't attainable unless we can try to find some things we can agree on. And while it's never too soon to start the conversation, in today's divided climate, who knows how, and if, we can ever agree on anything.
"Friends with Guns" is being performing at the Road Theatre on Magnolia in North Hollywood through May 11.