Written by Michael McKeever
Directed by Joe Brancato
It’s an all-too-familiar pattern. A senseless act of violence claims the lives of innocent people. Reporters swarm the scene, pundits burnish their best expressions of deep concern as panel discussions dominate the airwaves, politicians bluster about gun regulation, vigils are held for the fallen. And then, with little fanfare, the whole event passes out of the news cycle as some new atrocity or scandal captures the media’s attention. What we rarely see is the private suffering, the unthinkable burden that must be carried by the families of both victims and perpetrators in the wake of a tragedy. With remarkable psychological insight, Michael McKeever takes a bold and compassionate look at the private hell behind the headlines.
AFTER takes place in the type of community that, until recently, would never have been thought of as a dangerous place to raise kids. Brian Prather’s stately set tells us that the people to who to whom this living room belongs are affluent but not ostentatious, proud but reserved, people accustomed to a certain degree of security and continuity. Tellingly, the decor includes a hunting trophy and a collection of antique rifles. But the effect isn’t meant to be menacing. It’s all part of a country squire ambience cultivated by dashing, prosperous Tate Campbell (Michael Frederic) and his trim, fashionable wife Julia (Mia Matthews). The two stand out in contrast to their reluctant visitors, Alan and Connie Beckman (Bill Phillips and Denise Cormier), whose prim respectability tells us they are well-off enough to live in suburbia, but don’t go in for top-salon hairstyles and designer duds (Gregory Gale’s meticulously detailed costumes are character studies in themselves). Class tension remains an undercurrent in the dynamic between the two couples, but the tension in the room is caused by something far more urgent. Kyle, the Campbell’s teenage son, has sent a troubling text message to the Beckman’s boy Matthew. Though Matthew himself wanted nothing to do with it, Connie and Alan, having accidentally seen the text, felt compelled to notify the high school principal. This could mean suspension for Kyle. Depending on one’s point of view, the text could constitute or real threat or, as Tate believes, just a case of standard, if stupid, teen behavior.
Friends for years, the Campbells and Beckmans are loath to enter into a confrontation, but something must be done. Despite the presence of Julia’s level-headed sister Val (Jolie Curtsinger), the ensuing debate burns away a the characters’ veneer of civility, and repressed aggressions bubble to the surface. Leaving the husbands out of it this time, the women attempt to patch things up. Their efforts are stalled by Connie’s prickliness and Julia’s indignation at being judged. Nevertheless, they seem to be edging toward common ground, united by a deep concern for the welfare of their kids. Then, with one sudden phone call, the life they once knew is suddenly blown apart. In the play’s devastating last act, the parents must reconcile themselves to the truth of what has happened to their children. Their worst fears have been realized, but not in away that anyone could have predicted. The text was only the tip of the iceberg, and none of the adults had any idea of the unrelenting hell their children were living in. Neither side can claim a moral victory, and both the interventionist Beckmans and the laissez-faire Campbells are unable to comprehend how their parenting styles – however imperfect – could have led to this.
Similar in premise to Yasmina Reza’s GOD OF CARNAGE (though far more powerful), McKeever’s script adroitly builds tension and seamlessly braids exposition with argument. Under Joe Brancato’s taut direction, the cast accomplishes the challenging feat of being deeply in sync as actors while playing characters who can’t get on the same page. The production is mercifully free of tearful ostentation and big epiphanies. In fact, the very lack of a catharsis drives home the starkness of the situation. For these shattered characters, heartbreak can never be purged, only borne in endless silence.
AFTER continues through April 14, 2019, at 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, between Madison and Park Avenues. Tickets: www.59e59.org/shows