'The Gun Show' doesn't shoot from the hip

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By Doug Deuchler

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Folks look to 16th Street Theater in Berwyn for tight, edgy drama that pushes the envelope on social issues. The Gun Show by EM Lewis will certainly not disappoint in that regard. This world-premiere, Jeff-Recommended production is provocative and timely. Director Kevin Christopher Fox stages the one-person nonfiction confessional drama with insight and balance.

The issue of gun control seems to intensify in the summer. After every weekend, we learn the escalating body count from gun violence in Chicago. Over the 4th of July weekend there were 82 shootings. Sixteen people died. 

The award-winning playwright, EM Lewis, has decidedly mixed feelings about guns. But that's one of the strengths of her very personal new work. It's built around five compelling, interconnected true stories. But Lewis refuses to take sides in the gun control debate. She seeks to open up the dialogue. Her play is neither anti-gun nor pro-gun. Her conflicted feelings were shaped by the situations being shared. Her fifth, climactic story is especially harrowing.

The advertising for the production includes this tagline: "We have a problem with guns in America. The problem is, we really, really like them."

Lewis' play is written for a male. The playwright's alter-ego narrator, Juan Francisco Villa, is a fine actor whose one-man autobiographical show Empanada for a Dream was moving and successful at 16th Street Theater last season. 

Within the intimacy of the Berwyn performance space, it often seems as if Villa is looking directly at you. The "4th wall" gets broken. In fact, at one point he shines a flashlight directly at the playwright, who was seated across the aisle from me. I'm told Lewis will be in the audience during every performance of The Gun Show.

Lewis grew up in rural Oregon where "guns were as common as bicycles." Her boyfriend and future husband taught her how to shoot. 

She does not provide answers. She thinks the conversation has been hijacked by those on the extreme edges while most people fall somewhere in the middle. "The nut jobs don't want us talking together," the narrator says.

A further comment: "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 gun-toting, plain-voting, red-white-and-booyah conservative card-carrying NRA members."

In the post-show discussion, conducted by 16th Street's artistic director, Ann Filmer, we were asked to share our personal "gun stories." I passed, thinking I had nothing to offer, but upon leaving the theater several vivid memories came flooding back to me. I'd guess almost everyone has an anecdote, positive or negative, about guns if they think about it. I have several.

I admit I'm not a fan of guns. For me the 2nd Amendment of 1791, which ensures the right to bear arms, makes no sense in modern times. It was ratified when most Americans were rural, had just fought a revolution, and often hunted for their own supper. The nation of the late 18th century was nothing like ours. 

But like most little boys of the 1950s, I worshiped the rootin'-tootin' cowboy heroes of early TV. I loved my Gene Autry gun and holster and my Roy Rogers cap pistol. Our little posse of neighborhood cowboys ran around shooting at one another on vacant lot "prairies." But after I witnessed Bambi's mom being killed by hunters in that Disney movie, the thrill was gone. By the time I went to Boy Scout camp a few years later, I hated guns. One of our compulsory recreational activities, which was overwhelmingly popular with everyone at camp but me, was a rifle range where we shot at clay pigeons being mechanically discharged into the air. I would keep slipping backward in the line, letting other boys go ahead of me so I never had to fire that gun. 

In the late '60s when I first started teaching, I was held up at gunpoint on an el platform at high noon. The cops later caught the perps who had been on a crime spree that week. I suffered no post-traumatic stress but I'll admit once you've had a loaded gun pointed at you, you never fully shake that memory.

That same year, I had students who were rehearsing a class presentation — a cutting from a play that involved the use of a revolver. So I borrowed a "starting pistol" from the track coach. There is no bullet and not even an opening in the barrel of such guns, used to loudly signal the beginning of races, so there was nothing to fear. But I did not even want to leave this realistic handgun in my classroom while I went to lunch so I took it with me. Before I got in the faculty cafeteria lunch line I carefully wrapped the pistol in my sport coat and hid it out of sight on a chair at my lunch table. But as I was paying for my soup and salad there was a loud blast in the dining room. Women screamed. 

People often get crazy around guns. An older lady teacher, ever overly curious, had seen me wrap up the pistol in my jacket. Wondering what it was for or if it was real, she inexplicably fired it! 

In the mid-1970s my African-American wife and I were on the South Side spending Sunday afternoon with her widowed father. My oldest son was just a toddler at this point. I never asked, but I suspected my father-in-law kept a gun in the house. This had been a necessity for many black people who originated in the South where they had virtually no police protection. Families had to defend themselves. But I assumed my father-in-law kept his pistol well-hidden. All of a sudden I looked up over the Sunday Sun-Times to see my little son toddling toward me across the living room with a revolver in his hand. That gun looked as big as he was. I was frozen in fear but my father-in-law leaped from behind the baby and grabbed it out of his hand. 

My daughter is a police officer and I try not to notice her gun when she stops by on her breaks. But I'm glad she's armed, of course. 

The Gun Show runs about 75 minutes with no intermission. It seems initially low-key and laid-back, but it quickly gets intense, drawing in its audience with Lewis' personal stories and Villa's strong performance.

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