Regional Reviews: Chicago
The Last Living Gun
Stevens' play is a western that takes place in a future where guns have been eliminated from the United States, which has devolved into a series of tiny fiefdoms run by dubious characters who have, by dint of strength, numbers, or sheer force of will, taken charge. (Stevens' often very clever script, which combines musical parody, supreme silliness, plaintive monologues, cowboy music, and a bit of the supernatural with a genre story fueled by a search for the world's last remaining pistol, fails to offer any explanation to account for this societal breakdown, its accompanying indentured servitude, or where all of the technology has gone. That's a problem, but also outside of the play's focus.)
Nyajai Ellison stars as Rose Of Sharon Hutchins, a half-broken survivor of the last of the American school shootings, who has made a reputation for herself by wandering the remnants of the country on missions for her long-ago rescuer, Emily Gulbrandsen's Father Calendar. (Gulbrandsen later appears as other characters as well; in fact, Ellison is one of only two cast members who play a single role throughout; the other is Kati Yau, who plays her traveling companion Throatpin.) Calendar has begun to believe that the long-rumored last gun is not, as most believe, a myth, and he sends Rose of Sharon to find it and bring it to him. For private, clearly nefarious reasons, he also sends two mercenaries, Wallace (also Gulbrandsen) and Angel Mouth (Tessa Marie Hoffman), to shadow Rose of Sharon and make sure the gun comes back to him. (Hoffman has a wonderfully funny turn later in the play as a woman with a notable–and excellent–northern Wisconsin accent who never loses her internalized penchant for hospitality despite the dire circumstances in which she finds herself.)
Ellison, playing an indentured servant, shows little in the way of joy as Rose of Sharon does her duty for what Calendar tells her will be the last time. This is a serious character, molded by childhood trauma, rarely if ever laughing or even smiling. She is perfectly countered by Throatpin–what a name!–who is by nature ebullient and open, approaching even this uncertain cross-country journey as a lark. Yau begins the play as a kind of narrator, stepping out of her character frequently to make comments on what is happening. Her insouciant, carefree persona, aided by a wealth of cast-driven comedy, gives the first act a breezy, light undertone despite the hints of danger; the comic and the hazardous change places in Act Two, when the danger becomes more immediate.
The wandering duo travels a winding northeasterly route toward the gun's last rumored location, meeting and dealing with a motley collection of people who get in their way, including the remnants of the last remaining football team (the Possums), a devious coffin-maker, and a vampire (!) before coming across the town where the gun should be. It turns out, of course, that the gun is real and has been safeguarded by the town's leaders (Gunner Bradley–a perfect name for this–and Philip J. Macaluso), for reasons that Rose of Sharon is about to discover: the thing is seductive. When she first picks it up, Rose of Sharon is shocked by its weight and its power, but there is something she doesn't know: in claiming it, she has awakened a demon that has lurked within her since that long-ago school shooting, a creature that she calls "Our Lady of Scars."
Our Lady of Scars is brilliantly and malevolently played by Kayla Higbee, who becomes the clear über-antagonist of Act Two. Her most visible scars (large X's across each eye) match the ones within Rose of Sharon, who has spent a lifetime fighting against the indelible images of classmates being gunned down. Now that Our Lady of Scars has found her, Rose of Sharon has nowhere to run or hide from that horror. The demon is formed from the part of her that was intrigued by the force a gun-wielder bears, and she knows that it is a small step from handling one to firing it and an even smaller step to succumbing to the allure of the power it presents.
Stevens has penned a rolling, inventive play that makes excellent use of the ten cast members (including three musicians, who sometimes assume parts). Some of his monologues are a bit melodramatic, though they are honestly delivered, and there is a notable anti-gun stance to the plot as he shows us how even the best people can be altered by such weapons. Roseen carefully takes the characters through Stevens' sometimes jarring tonal variations, using these to create fun transitional moments that break down the fourth wall and invite the audience to feel like part of the company. (A few examples: the visible, loud-enough-to-hear-backstage comforting of Rose of Sharon as she walks off after a particularly emotional speech; the use of stage manager Miranda Hernandez to loudly call places from the back of the house where she is running cues–with the response, "Thank you, Places" from behind the set bringing smiles to the audience; and cute, fun signs left at a ghost light before and after the show.)
Roseen keeps everything moving throughout, though the pacing changes with the script's protean movements. He is aided by some strong design work from Ethan Gasbarro (set), Emma Luke (lighting), Victor Lopez (costumes), and Dominick Alesia (composer) to create a story that is so tonally fluctuating and openly emotional that the traditional "tell all your friends" moment at the end is replaced by an admonition to tell them not to see the show (so Roseen and Hernandez won't have to put the cast through this again). However, while it is a bit inconsistent and slow-moving in spots–it could stand to be trimmed by fifteen minutes or so–The Last Living Gun is worth their efforts. As we continue to struggle with the violent legacy of our Second Amendment, this show reminds us of the difficulty of slowing it down when even "a good man with a gun" can become corrupted by the power in their hands.
The Last Living Gun, a production of The Imposters Theatre Company, runs through October 14, 2023, at the Den Theatre, 1313 N. Milwaukee, Chicago IL. For tickets and information, please visit theimpostorstheatre.com.