We never see or hear the gun.
Despite Lindsey Ferrentino’s new play being a clear response to the epidemic of school shootings in America, not a single firearm comes onstage during the duration of “This Flat Earth,” which runs through April 29th at Playwrights Horizons. The word “gun” does not appear in the script.
Instead, Ferrentino and her director, Rebecca Taichman, focus on the time immediately after a school shooting has occurred.
The story is told primarily through the eyes of Julie (Ella Kennedy Davis), a thirteen-year-old whose sheltered upbringing is an effect of her family’s circumstances. Her father, Dan (Lucas Papaelias), works double-duty as a single parent and as a water company employee. Unlike most of her peers, Julie has not grown up with the luxury of a cell phone or laptop. She doesn’t know that school shootings have happened before.
Her circumstantial unplugged-ness turns Julie into a tabula rasa, one who asks the audience to consider how humans would respond to news of a school shooting if they hadn’t been numbed by the knowledge that this has all happened before, and often.
It’s an original way into a difficult subject, and one that adds an layer of complexity when Julie asks her father simple but tough questions like “Why don’t the grown-ups just fix it?”
While Dan seems legitimately affected by his daughter’s indignation, Julie’s friend Zander (Ian Saint-Germain), the proud owner of a smartphone, just brushes it off. When she asks “Did you know this has happened before?” Zander pauses for a moment before responding, “I mean – yeah, duh.”
The way this desensitized attitude can perpetuate through generations of inaction is suggested — if not directly stated — by the presence of Cloris (Lynda Gravátt), an elderly lady who lives in the apartment above Julie and Dan. (This is handled in a memorable way by Dane Laffrey’s stacked set design). Cloris becomes a sort of grandmother figure to Julie, while at times also seeming like a mother figure to Dan.
Dan goes through some tough times, too. The show’s conflict comes in the form of Lisa (Cassie Beck), the parent of one of the shooting victims. Her relationship with Dan becomes complicated (I won’t spoil that here), and Beck’s performance plays into that complexity in a very satisfying way.
This is Julie’s show, though, and that becomes a problem. Her character simply feels out of sync with the present.
On the night I attended, the program had a sticker over the “Time” section in the list of information about the show’s setting. “Now” had been pasted over with “The recent past,” suggesting a last-minute change.
This may have been partly because, in light of the barrage of student activism following the shooting in Parkland, Florida, the suspension of disbelief required to believe that any student in America, cell phone or not, is unaware that school shootings have happened has become distractingly hard to swallow.
But I think the larger reason why the play feels off is because the questions it asks through Julie — and the suggestion that adults and those in positions of power have not done more to prevent school shootings as a result of desensitization or inaction — feels inadequate at a time when the level of passion surrounding the issue on both sides has never been clearer.
The lobbyists, laws and powerful adults between Julie’s real-world counterparts and the gun-free schools they want are anything but passive. Sometimes they’re on her side. Other times, they’re attacking her over Twitter.
What Julie should be angry about is not desensitization or laziness; it’s an active and powerful system.