The citizens of Forest Treás, a fictitious Montgomery County suburb, are preparing for their annual pre-Halloween Fun Run. Mr. Chylle (David S. Kessler), the retired host of a popular children’s program, Mr. Chylle’s Cul-de-Sac (an obvious pastiche of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood) now anchors Sunrise Summit, a local morning news program with the aid of his production assistants Hiba (Sara Herrera) and Chip (Timothy Thompson). His now adult fans who have become his neighbors recite his motto: “Calm down, hear your heart, you can do this.”
The neighborhood has been designated the safest community in America, which brings freelance television journalist Roberta (Lee Gerstenhaber) to town to shoot a documentary on what makes Forest Treás special. Though the name evokes the well known aphorism about not seeing the big picture, the residents pronounce it “triage.” (“Treás” is also Hungarian for treason.) Soon after conducting her first interview, in which the proprietor of the local gas station (an eccentric Melissa Carter) provides a local’s history of the community, a different sort of history intrudes on this suburban paradise.
In October of 2002, a series of what appeared to be randomly chosen sniper attacks tore through the region, terrifying residents. The perpetrators targeted people in open areas, but law enforcement officials knew little about their motives. When officials finally arrested former Army sergeant John Allen Muhammed and his 17-year-old accomplice Lee Boyd Malvo on October 24, the body count came to 17 dead and 10 wounded.
In this world premiere drama presented by Pointless Theatre, playwright Navid Azeez has chosen neither to dramatize the investigation of the crimes nor the personal motivations and extremist ideology of the snipers—the killers’ names are never spoken, and only the victims’ names are memorialized. Likewise, then-Montgomery County Chief of Police Charles Moose only appears via documentary footage. Azeez is not interested in exposing some ugly secret hidden in his idealized world. His focus is on a community’s response to terror. In documenting the crisis, Roberta rises. Gerstehaber’s performance traces a character arc as an anxiously twitchy outsider who becomes more invested in the community and more comfortable in her own skin.
Through Roberta’s interviews we see responses to the immediate threat that have unintended consequences we have only begun to understand in recent years: Power-walking guru Riley (Acacia Danielson) takes to posting her routes online, as she literally collects followers in the hope that her visibility both as a local and internet celebrity will ensure her continued existence. A sleepless self-appointed guardian of the community (Eric Swartz) who does not trust the police to track all the suspicious white vans seen on the roads of Forest Treás turns that task into his personal cause, while Quinton (Mason Catharini), who drives a white delivery van, feels compelled to let everyone know that he’s “not the sniper.”
Appropriately for a play in which television plays a central role, director Kelly Colburn is a multimedia maximalist. Video is not merely projected onto screens, it’s a live feed shot by the actors themselves, whether their characters are skilled professionals or experimenting with the equipment for the first time. Emily Lotz’s multi-part set includes the television studio where Mr. Chylle’s Sunrise Summit is filmed. Grace Guarniere’s wonderfully detailed miniatures of the school, gas station, community center, cars, and vans of Forest Treás recall the diorama of Fred Rogers’ model neighborhood seen at the opening and closing of his program. Rachel Menyuk’s choreography ranges from the aerobic exercises Riley leads her followers through to the mimetic creation of Quinton’s van to a tableau in which the vigilante’s paranoia is made corporeal. Aside from his scripting duties, Azeez has also composed the score, at times recalling Cornershop’s chiller, dreamier tracks, or the chamber music of John Cale.
Azeez’s sense of specificity with time and place is never parochial; it recalls other communities whose resilience in the face of atrocity has been reported, such as the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, where the real Mister Rogers lived, the site of this past October’s Tree of Life Synagogue massacre. Azeez is one of a small number of local playwrights who writes work that is assertive in local history without referencing the local industry.
To June 29 at 4618 14th St. NW. $30. (202) 733-6321. pointlesstheatre.com.