E.M. Lewis tells a personal story in “The Gun Show.” Five personal stories, actually.
All of them give the Passage Theater audience something separate to think about in terms of the unique American debate about things that shoot and which, target practice aside, are meant to shoot lethally.
Lewis takes care not to sway the audience in any particular direction. She is more interested in experiences people had with guns than she is about political attitudes towards them, at least for the purposes of her play. Even in a discussion that takes place immediately after each performance and gives the audience a chance to speak, June Ballinger — artistic director of Passage Theater, where the play continues through Sunday, February 8 — cautions she is interested in hearing personal stories involving firearms and not in opinions or polemic.
The effect of “The Gun Show” is quite effective. It may not change any individual’s mind about Second Amendment rights, let alone intentions, and it may not attempt to smooth the divide among defenders and detractors of gun ownership, but it does present the arguments for each stance clearly and is constantly thought provoking, particularly as each story adds new color to the general gun discussion.
Lewis prefers directness over coyness and irony in telling her stories, all of which derive from incidents in her life. The theatricality in “The Gun Show” emerges from the simplicity of the experiences related and the inherent drama in two of them, a robbery in which Lewis, or her character, Ellen, is behind a counter at a book store, and a suicide committed by Ellen’s late husband.
Lewis also uses a canny device that simultaneously distances and engages the audience. She has assigned the part of Ellen, her biographical representative, to a male actor. While you’re listening to tales about everything from hunting and gun familiarity to maturing and marriage, you hear the stories from the point of view and in the voice of a woman, but the person standing in front of you is a man in a red flannel shirt, similar in pattern to a hunter’s jacket, over a gray T-shirt and jeans. The effect is never jarring, but it makes you listen more because you hear handsome, masculine Trent Blanton, talk about his partner, and think, “gay?” before, in the next second you remember, “No, he’s Ellen, and Ellen’s a woman. The man is playing a woman.”
And he is, but in a manner that is in no way feminine. I don’t bring this up as a comment about actors in cross-gender roles, but only to say how quickly you accept Blanton as Ellen and how it’s only incidentally you are struck by Ellen’s words and stories coming from the baritone of a man.
Blanton is excellent in a role that is tricky, not because of the gender shift but because it’s Lewis’ narrative that has to grab you.
Blanton is alone on stage. He has a script, which is memorized, and stage direction, but mostly he has stories, and Blanton makes these quite engaging. He also breaks the fourth wall to involve the audience, benignly by shining a flashlight on people’s faces and more actively by going into the Passage house and talking directly to someone, mostly to bring a story closer.
The actor is also strong in establishing eye contact. Unlike many performers who look past actual faces, Blanton seeks the gaze of audience members as he speaks and holds the gaze firmly as a segment of his story continues. This enhances the immediacy of Lewis’ tales and creates a bond between the audience and the storyteller. It also enhances the individuality and sincerity of each passage.
Since E.M. Lewis is the Ellen depicted by Blanton in her play, we find out a lot about her. She grew up on a farm in rural Oregon — on land so isolated the Lewis family property was 50 miles from any police station and much more distant from its nearest neighbor than seems fathomable to someone from the city or the suburbs.
Being so remote, “The Gun Show’s” Ellen points out, guns were a natural fixture of the household. They were as matter-of-fact as a teapot or curtains. Ellen talks about hunting and having guns for protection in a place where a volunteer fire company was handier than the police.
Guns as just one more item on the landscape means one learns how to use a gun and how to be safe with it. Rifles, after all, rest against a kitchen wall along with the brooms.
Lewis’s stories about her husband are especially telling. As a veteran and an Oregonian, he is also accustomed to guns. His familiarity may not have worked to his favor. Lewis also makes you think of the wrong side of a gun while describing a robbery.
Trent Blanton maintains intensity through a Passage production deftly directed by Damon Bonetti, who aimed for tautness and tension and hit his mark.
The Gun Show, Passage Theater, 205 East Front Street, Trenton. Through Sunday, February 8, Thursday through Saturday, 8 p.m., Sunday, 3 p.m. $12 to $30. 609-392-0766 or www.passagetheatre.org.