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17 Minutes

Theatre Review by James Wilson - January 22, 2020

Larry Mitchell and Shannon Patterson
Photo by Joey Moro
After the 2018 school shooting at Florida's Parkland High School that took seventeen lives, a good deal of media attention focused on the actions—or inactions—of the only armed officer at the scene when the first shots were fired. "The Coward of Broward," as the deputy sheriff had been dubbed, remained outside while the carnage within occurred, and he was subsequently ridiculed publicly (including by Donald Trump) and charged with seven counts of felony neglect of a child. Although Scott Organ's 17 Minutes, in a premiere production by The Barrow Group, is not directly based on the incidents around the Parkland shooting and the notorious deputy, there are many similarities, and the play raises complex questions about the desire to assign blame in the wake of a senseless and tragic massacre.

When the play opens, Deputy Andy Rubens (Larry Mitchell) is asked to give an official statement to Detective Virgil Morris (Brian Rojas), who has been assigned to gather the facts around a school shooting that resulted in the deaths of eighteen students. That fateful morning, Rubens was at his assigned post at the school, and stationed at another entrance was his partner Mary Stevens (Shannon Patterson), who eventually subdued the student gunman.

Rubens contacted the local police after the first sounds of shots, but rather inexplicably, he did not make any effort to pursue the perpetrator or to help the individuals holed up inside the school. He apparently did nothing for an entire seventeen minutes (hence the title) at which time the SWAT team arrived and whisked him from the scene.

The rest of the play shows the slow burn of responses as word of Rubens' acts reaches the community. For instance, we see the effect it has on his job, his marriage (DeAnna Lenhart is his emotionally distraught wife), and his relationship with the community. In a particularly tense scene, Rubens is presented as much of a pariah as Dan Watson (movingly portrayed by Michael Giese), the shooter's father who tacitly allowed his son access to an automatic rifle. As Watson says to Rubens at a chance meeting in a bar, "You just found the guy everybody hates even more than you."

Organ's writing shows admirable restraint, avoiding pitched emotional pronouncements about gun control, arming teachers and staff, and the failure to address mental health issues in teenagers. As becomes evident, particularly in a beautifully wrought exchange between Rubens and the mother (Lee Brock) of a slain student, the issue is much more thorny, and there are no easy answers nor obviously blameworthy targets, no matter how much we wish there to be.

Larry Mitchell and DeAnna Lenhart
Photo by Joey Moro
The audience is seated on two sides of the playing area and forced to look at each other. The structural arrangement bolsters a sense of community engagement, and everyone is implicated in the immense social problem. Additionally, Edward T. Morris's simple but effective scenic design and Solomon Weisbard's florescent-lit lighting design provide the sense of examining the issue with close scrutiny as if watching lab rats in an operant conditioning chamber. (Providing elements of added realism, Matsy Stinson designed the costumes, and Emma Wilk designed the sound.)

The performances under Seth Barrish's direction are excellent. Mitchell plays Rubens as a hapless everyman, and he impressively exhibits the character's evolution from willful obtuseness to victimhood to overwhelming despair. The other actors masterfully demonstrate that tragic events ripple through a community and leave no one unscarred. As a loving and supportive wife, Lenhart shows the collateral damage to her own life, and even as Deputy Stevens is celebrated for her heroism, Patterson presents her as riven with confusion and self-doubt. Brock, who plays the tough-as-nails mother of a shooting victim, is heartbreaking in her short scene.

17 Minutes tackles one of the most pressing contemporary social problems facing the United States. While politicians, pundits, and concerned citizens debate the topic (or alternatively speak volumes through their silence), Organ's play accomplishes what the theatre does best: It presents this issue not as an emotionally fraught intellectual argument, but as a complicated and compassionate human drama.

17 Minutes
Through February 15, 2020
The Barrow Group Mainstage Theatre, 312 West 36th Street, 3rd Floor, New York NY
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