Grief takes an unexpected form in 'On the Exhale'

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CHESTER — Acting can take you to unfamiliar places. For Tara Franklin, that was never more true than when she traveled to a Manchester, N.H., shooting range in preparation for her role in Chester Theatre Company's production of "On the Exhale," Mart n Zimmerman's play about gun violence that was inspired by the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn. The actress shot a rifle at the New Hampshire site.

"It was a pretty crazy experience. I've never held a gun before. I don't think I'd ever seen one in real life. In all my years, it's only been in movies and on TV," Franklin told The Eagle during a phone interview.

To be clear, no weapons are onstage during this solo show that opens Thursday and runs through Aug. 4, but the story requires that its deliverer physically and emotionally convey the power of guns. Directly addressing the audience, Franklin plays a college professor reckoning with her son Michael's death in an elementary school shooting. Her grief prompts her to try conjuring the scene of the tragedy, leading to a fixation on the weapon behind Michael's murder and a personal exploration of its effects.

"She wants to feel what it felt like for him. Can she somehow get that feeling? The gun is the last thing he saw. It's the last thing that touched him before he was killed. So, in that way, it becomes this sort of conduit for being able to connect with him, and I think that's pretty intense," Franklin said.

Before the monologue reaches that point, the audience learns that the unnamed speaker has an extraordinarily close relationship to Michael. She's a single mother who pursued college with little help or encouragement, someone who is "very self-possessed," according to Franklin.

"Though she teaches to groups of students, and she has a community surrounding her, she has very much focused her life on her son so that it ends up just being the two of them against the world, if you will," the actress said.

While Michael's memory remains present throughout the work, only the mother is onstage. It's the first time Franklin, a veteran of theaters near and far, is performing solo.

"That has been a wonderful challenge for me," the Dalton native said. "It's pretty scary being up there alone, but there's also something quite powerful about it that I'm finding."

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The play's syntax appealed to Franklin, who serves as Chester Theatre Company's associate artistic director and director of education. The script read like verse.

"It's written in this poem form, so it provides this great texture to the language. There's also this sense of almost like a Greek chorus. I hear that when I read it," she said of the play that debuted during Roundabout Underground's 2017 season in New York City.

The work's subject matter was the other pull. Franklin has "strong opinions" about gun violence, but she understands that her performance needs to resonate with audience members on different sides of the gun debate. The script's use of second person helps, she said, because it makes that conversation direct and personal to all. Nobody wants to lose a child or someone else they love.

"You feel this because we all do. It is a universal fear. I don't think even if you are a supporter of these types of weapons, even if you can't understand how people could possibly take away your Second Amendment rights, the minute that kind of violence touches your life, touches you, I think things would change dramatically," she said.

As Franklin's character demonstrates, there isn't one way for that sorrow to manifest itself.

"You don't have any idea what your reaction will be. Obviously, there will be grief that's beyond measure. I think that's just sort of expected, but there's this other thing that happens where I don't know what I would do," Franklin said.

The topic is never far from Franklin's mind. The actress, who lives in Williamstown with her actor-director husband James Barry, drops off their 8-year-old son, Sam, at school every day.

"There is not a day that goes by that I don't walk out of that school and have a flash of fear that something could happen," she said. "And that's just part of our existence now. That's part of the terror that we have to live with."

Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at bcassidy@berkshireeagle.com, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251. 


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