CHESTER — Martin Zimmerman's "On the Exhale" is about a female liberal college professor's coming of age in the worst possible way — the violent death of her second grader son.
Set in a perhaps not-too-distant America in which the Supreme Court has okayed concealed carry as the law of the land, "On the Exhale" — which is being given a solid, beautifully measured New England premiere at Chester Theatre Company — is a monologue delivered by a unnamed single mother (Tara Franklin), a professor of women's studies at a small liberal arts college in a tight-knit liberal arts college community who has recurrent dreams that some day some crazy, disgruntled, dissatisfied student will exercise his grudges against her by shooting her in her office or classroom
She has lived by her own choices — choosing a single lifestyle without partner, male or female; choosing to have a child through artificial insemination; shifting her life away from campus to this boy, this Michael.
"To choose a child by yourself in the quiet bedroom community surrounding your college's campus? It means choosing the subtle scrutiny of everyone around you," she says at one point.
And so, as she turns away from the well-intentioned intrusions of well-meaning friends, she draws even closer to a son "who can't wait to start second grade," she says. And in that bonding, she takes on just about every parents' worst fear.
"You always imagined it happening to you," she says, recalling the moment the chair of her department comes to her office and, standing at the door, tells her there's been a shooting at "the school," not realizing at first that "the school" is not their campus but, rather, her son's elementary school. And the agony begins; the heart-stopping apprehension as she rushes to her son's school and waits, along with other parents, for news as the sheriff works his way classroom to classroom, class parents to class parents informing them of the fate of their children; of this woman's child, Michael. The breath-taking shock; the numbing aftermath; the adjustment to a new reality — life without her boy.
"You will never know what happened in that room," she says. "So your mind fixates on meaning, finding somewhere to assign blame but all the usual suspects ... seem so distant, so nebulous, as far beyond your grasp as the circumstances surrounding Michael's death.
"And then," she continues, "in the midst of your despair your salvation appears in the form of a news report on the store where the shooter (who has been killed during his classroom by classroom rampage) purchase his weapon; legally purchased his weapon."
And off she goes, seeking answers from the gun shop owner who sold the shooter the assault rifle he used in his savagery. It's an encounter that will take this desperate woman down yet another path she never thought she would travel.
"On the Exhale" — the title is taken from the gun shop owner's firing instructions: "Start by breathing in and out deeply, slowly, and when you're ready, slowly squeeze the trigger on the exhale" — is a memory play, told in the second person from an unspecified distance in time. That second person point of view also provides the narrator with an emotional distancing, although there is nothing in Franklin's astonishing delivery to suggest that this woman's intense pain, anger, confusion, resentment, have diminished.
Travis George's setting is a nearly antiseptic off-white space whose only furniture is a simple black-and-chrome bench. Half-open slats across the back reveal a deepening blue background. Franklin is dressed in a white top and jeans but her emotional palette is perfectly suited a play that is at once starkly simple and richly layered.
Franklin is a remarkably gifted actress who has such an admirable gift for living underneath the skin of her characters; portraying them with nuanced detail. Under Colette Robert's insightful direction, Franklin's oh, so smart performance here is cannily calibrated; a portrait of an in-drawn woman who presents as strong and resourceful; who is determined to be no one's victim, even in the face of formidable obstacles.
Franklin's delivery of Zimmerman's narrative builds with a steady, sure, carefully measured momentum — all its own and all of it pointing to a stunning hold-your-breath conclusion. Then, exhale.