It’s been over a decade since playwright E. M. Lewis came home to a tragedy that would indelibly shape her life and her art. It’s taken her that long to write about the event, sculpting the sorrow and the shock into the final, harrowing scene in “The Gun Show,” opening Thursday at Berwyn’s 16th Street theatre.
“The Gun Show” is an “ugly story,” asserts the narrator/Lewis alter-ego at the center of the one-person show, a “complicated, messy, violent” work. You could add compelling, provocative, and unexpected to that roster of adjectives. Based on five gun-related events in Lewis’ life, “The Gun Show” is neither pro- or anti-gun. Instead, Lewis uses her own alternately tragic, funny and life-changing experiences with guns to step outside the polarized ends of the gun control debate.
“The whole conversation about guns and gun control seems to be between the granola-eating, Whole Foods-shopping, Rachel Maddow-listening, liberal pinko lefties and the gin-toting, plain-voting, red-white-and-boo yah conservative card-carrying NRA members,” Lewis says from the rural Portland, Ore., farm that’s been in her family for generations. “It’s as if there’s nobody in between who has mixed feelings about the whole thing.”
Lewis has profoundly mixed feelings about guns, views shaped by the five stories her narrator tells in “The Gun Show.”
“We all want the same thing — to be safe,” she says. “But guess what? Guns don’t equal safety. No guns don’t equal safety.
“I don’t have any answers,” she says, “I just want to start a conversation, because I feel like the conversation about guns has been hijacked by the people on the extreme edges. And I refuse to cede that conversation to the extremist nutjobs who don’t want us to talk to each other.”
Growing up in Portland, Lewis recalls, guns were as common as bicycles. They were like cars, practical, powerful tools that demanded respect and that you had to learn about before you used them. Her parents kept a pair of shotguns leaning against the back door.
“We didn’t glorify them or obsess over them,” says Lewis, “There was nothing special about guns, any more than there’d be something special about a tractor or a shovel.”
Lewis’ boyfriend — and later husband of nine years — taught her how to shoot, a visceral, self-empowering experience she describes in the first scene of “The Gun Show.” But once she left the farm, her feelings about guns began to get more complicated.
Guns took on a different cast after she took up residence in the big cities where she went to college and started her playwriting career. She was robbed at gunpoint. She had a deeply disturbing encounter with a cop. And then, the power of guns hit home in a way that was as violent as it was deeply personal.
By making “The Gun Show” a first-person confessional, Lewis leaves herself almost shockingly vulnerable, says director Kevin Christopher Fox.
The playwright will be in the audience for all performances, her presence crucial for a scene where her alter-ego narrator (Juan Francisco Villa) beams a flashlight right into her face, obliterating the fourth wall and inviting the audience to stare at the woman whose life is unfolding on stage. Lewis had a panic attack during the scene during a staged reading of the show in New York.
“It’s kind of terrifying, but I don’t want any artifice,” she says, “This is a true story, my true story. I don’t want anyone to have any doubts about that.”
“The Gun Show” also sent intense emotions roiling to the surface for Fox. It wasn’t easy, he said, talking frankly to Lewis about how to best stage the all-but unimaginably shocking tragedy she experienced in her real life.
“When I first read the play, my immediate reaction was oh my god, is this all true?” Fox says, “I knew I was going to have to ask this woman a lot of really uncomfortable questions about something that was incredibly personal and painful. The first time we talked about that fifth scene, I couldn’t stop shaking.”
As the lone star of “The Gun Show,” Villa (recently at 16th Street in his one-man autobiographical show “Empanada for a Dream”) brings his own troubled history with guns to the drama. As he described in “Empanada,” Villa grew up in New York City, in world of violence and a family of drug dealers.
“Yeah, people in my family were murdered by guns. And murdered other people with them,” he says, “I’m not a fan of guns. But when I read ‘The Gun Show’, I was so struck by the way she doesn’t take sides. She says this is what happened to me, and then she pushes and questions from all sides of the issue.
“Her stories are intimate and sensual and dangerous,” finishes Villa. “And I think that when people hear them, well, maybe then we can all start talking.”