I wonder what childless people do for terror. Since my two sons were born, all my worst fears have revolved around their lives. Not their natures or their choices but their lives. Though they’re both fully grown and self-sufficient now, the possibility of . . . something terrible . . . befalling either of them still scares me so much that I can’t bring myself to call that something by its right name here. Suffice to say that the cliche about parenthood is true: it’s absolutely as if your heart were running around loose in someone else’s body.
Laura Jacqmin not only names the dread something in Look, We Are Breathing, her new play, receiving an effective world premiere production now at Rivendell Theatre. She reprises its unfolding for us again and again.
Jacqmin’s 90-minute one-act concerns Mike Hewitt, a sandy-haired 17-year-old living in an upscale, old-growth suburb (picture Winnetka) somewhere in the midwest. White, well-off, and charming, Mike has all the accoutrements of privilege and deploys them with breezy cunning in an attempt to render his junior year of high school as snag-free as possible. He smokes a lot of dope, ignores a lot of assignments, and drew a three-day suspension for that BB-gun incident, but he can still finesse his way past his parents and out of the house to party with his hockey-team pals on a school night.
It’s after that school-night blowout that a drunk, stoned Mike gets in his dad’s car, drives into something solid, and dies.
Mike’s death is disclosed at the start of Look, We Are Breathing, and Jacqmin isn’t primarily focused on why or how it happened. She doesn’t narrate the boy’s story so much as build a portrait of him, using flashbacks and the testimony of three women: his mother, Alice; his AP English teacher, Leticia; and nerdy classmate Caylee, who wants to be his girlfriend/spiritual widow.
What they have to say about Mike isn’t exactly the stuff of eulogies.
Far from losing her heart to her son, Alice admits to having felt alienated right from the start. In fact, she figures it was Mike’s birth itself that triggered her disengagement. Pregnancy was wonderful, she tells us, but “after he came out, when they put him in my arms, all I could think was: Put him back. Just put him back, and everything’ll be OK.” His developing individuality—”the more himself he became,” as she puts it—didn’t make bonding any easier. Now, in the wake of his death, she notes a decided lack of anguished behavior. She doesn’t “collapse weeping on top of his dirty laundry” or starve herself or let her hygiene go. She doesn’t mourn.
Leticia is still less sympathetic to the boy. A black teacher in an 83 percent white school (to which she flatters herself she’s brought a measure of curricular diversity), she clearly sees arrogant, impenetrable, dismissive, yet undeniably smart Mike as the archetype of entitlement at Heights High—and also the embodiment of her guilt for not teaching at an 83 percent black school. In the darkly comic speech with which she introduces herself, Leticia reacts to pressure to give Mike a posthumous A by going aggressively punctilious: “Dying in a car accident as a result of his own negligence is not an acceptable substitute for a six-page paper on narrative and personal identity that was never turned in. ”
It’s left to Caylee to feel bad about Mike’s death during the early going, and that’s pretty much only because doing so serves her adolescent fantasy of consoling Alice in her capacity as Mike’s true love.
As my tendency to quote the script may suggest, I love Jacqmin’s writing. Previous works like Ski Dubai (2009) and Dental Society Midwinter Meeting (2010) were heartfelt but decidedly eccentric satires. Look, We Are Breathing looks by comparison like an effort to move toward the mainstream with a more conventional, small-cast heart tugger that addresses a social issue or two in an audience-pleasing span of time. If that’s the plan, I hope it works. I’d be glad to see this play performed at every high school in the country, inasmuch as Jacqmin hasn’t sacrificed her unsentimental wit, verbal precision, or willingness to engage ambiguity to get there.
Megan Shuchman’s staging doesn’t make those sacrifices either. Played shockingly well by Brendan Meyer, Mike can Eddie Haskell with the best of them, gauging precisely the amount of respect he needs (or can fail) to display in a given situation. He’s an asshole yet still very much a kid. Similarly, Tara Mallen and Lily Mojekwu scorn vanity as Alice and Leticia respectively, owning their characters’ ugliness along with their pain. Brenann Stacker is a sweet mess as Caylee. v