Children kill one another with handguns more often than we think. That was the takeaway of the September 2013 New York Times story that inspired Marja-Lewis Ryan’s anguished play One in the Chamber. The Times piece, “Children and Guns: The Hidden Toll,” by Michael Luo and Mike McIntire, documented how inconsistent reporting of minors’ shooting deaths from state to state—some are recorded as accidents, while others are deemed homicides—minimizes the prevalence of the problem. The story also discusses the gun lobby’s pattern of resistance to safe-storage laws and efforts to stymie technologies that would allow only a handgun’s registered owner to fire it.
It’s a powerful piece of reporting, more pointed in its intent than Ryan’s dramatization of how the accidental killing of one child at the hands of another haunts a Colorado family. Her fictional scenario shares similarities with several of the real cases in the Times story: An adult has a lapse of vigilance and leaves a firearm where a kid can get to it. Crucially, that adult fails to clear the chamber of her semiautomatic pistol after removing the magazine, allowing one round to remain. While the increased sophistication of representations of firearms in movies, TV shows, and video games in recent decades seems certain to have propagated a fascination, particularly among boys, with firearms, this has not translated to a level of “gun literacy” that prevents some irresponsible adults—never mind kids—from believing still-loaded semi-autos are safe.
While no one writes a play about the shooting death of a 9-year-old because they believe guns are not a problem, Ryan’s writing is largely free of didacticism, at least until the abrupt, contrived conclusion. Until then, she displays real empathy for her characters. And while the overall effect of the show is one of all medicine and no sugar, it does feature a pair of extraordinary performances.
The play unfolds more or less in real time, on a Saturday when a social worker (Liz Osborn) is dispatched on a home visit as part of a parole evaluation for Adam (Noah Chiet), a 16-year-old who unintentionally killed his younger brother six years earlier. Although a convicted criminal—“they made an example of him,” says his harried mother, Helen (Adrienne Nelson)—he’s been allowed to live at home with his parents and attend high school. Adam’s father, Charles (Dwight Tolar), a big-box store manager and Army reservist, keeps his grief buried by working as much overtime as he can stand. Adam’s older sister Kaylee (Danielle Bourgeois) acts out and can’t wait to leave for college. The youngest child, Ruthie (Grace Doughty), has no memory of the accident, which occurred when she was just an infant. The social worker interviews them each individually, at a kitchen table covered in half-folded laundry. Helen can barely suppress her resentment at having to convince one of “you young, non-Christian people” that her home is a suitable place for her surviving son to remain.
The cast that Michael R. Piazza has assembled handles this grim material well. Tolar and Nelson are both especially strong, pivoting convincingly between forced make-nice smiles and flashes of pure rage. Kate Sullivan’s set is a credible recreation of the kind of overstuffed house a working family of five might share, and its proximity to the seats in the close confines of the Mead Theatre Lab adds to the sense that we’re intruding on a family that has enough pain in their lives without our nosy opinions. And don’t we judge the families when we read that another curious kid has shot himself or a sibling?
The show runs a mere 70 minutes, and at longer than that, its unrelenting bleakness would likely be suffocating. But for presenting its case in nonjudgmental terms, it deserves our attention.
916 G St. NW. $25. (202) 315-1305. oneinthechamberdc.com.