The one-year anniversary of the Parkland mass shooting passed a month ago, but the massacre that left 17 high school students dead and 17 more injured is still chilling — an assault that sparked a youth protest movement nationwide, calling for stricter gun control laws in response to more than 300 mass shootings in 2018 alone.
It was in the wake of the Parkland chaos that Trevor Vaughn decided to call Eric Micha Holmes. A project of theirs, from years ago, was suddenly weighing heavily on his heart.
He was done waiting. Now was the time for Holmes to dig his play, “Falls for Jodie,” out of the graveyard — if not for theater, then for the sake of their country.
The playwright agreed, and they quickly got to work.
“There were a lot of questions about guns and violence and shootings that popped back up in my mind, issues that we had tackled four years earlier,” Vaughn recalled during a telephone interview last week. “The arts do have a responsibility to talk about these issues and, at the end of the day, it’s the reason we’re here. It’s the reason I had this crazy gut feeling that this play had to be done again — it really needed to be produced — because of the unique capacity the arts has to help audiences get out of their normal realm of thinking.”
Directed by Bill Burford, the play — starring actors Trevor Vaughn and Michael Paul, now staging through March 17 at Guild Hall in East Hampton — is an imagined account of John W. Hinckley Jr.’s strange partnership with a concierge at a hotel next to the Yale University campus, who tries to help him win the affections of his child-star crush, Jodie Foster.
Inspired by true events, “Falls for Jodie” paints a portrait of Hinckley’s descent into isolation, hatred and obsession in the months and days leading up to his attempt on Ronald Reagan’s life in 1981, one that nearly killed the former president.
“The play itself deserves to be part of a national conversation about gun violence and why young men are vulnerable to turn to it,” Burford said. “It is a catalyst for a kind of conversation that can save lives — and we’re taking that very seriously.”
What started as a master’s thesis for Holmes at the University of Iowa found itself to the stage during a workshop reading at the University of North Texas, just before a one-night performance at the McKinney Performing Arts Center — a hometown reunion for Paul and Vaughn, Texan natives and lifelong friends who portray Hinckley and the concierge, Eddie, respectively.
“We were curious to see how it would land in Texas. That’s what began our journey — to take it down there to the lion’s den, so to speak,” Vaughn said. “Hinckley is from that area, too. He went to Highland Park, which is probably the most affluent public school in north Texas, and we used to play his high school in football and baseball. The more I learned, it’s such a small world. We got this great reception, a lot of positive feedback, and when I came back up to the city, I thought, ‘Well, what do I do now?’”
Burford happened to be in the McKinney audience that night — a north Texan himself, who knew the creative team through New York and East End connections. “Falls for Jodie” was still in the exploratory stage, he said, but he could see the subliminal communication between Vaughn and Paul, one that “goes way down deep into their spirits and their hides,” he said.
When asked to direct the first-ever full staging, with a substantial rehearsal period, he eagerly accepted, without hesitation.
“They said, ‘Bill, do you want to direct this?’ and I said, ‘Don’t throw me in that briar patch.’ You see what I’m saying? You see what I’m saying,” Burford said with a laugh. “They’re both wonderful players and it’s one of the most remarkable new plays I’ve run into. It’s fabulous to watch them on stage. I mean, there are times in rehearsal where I forget to do my job because they’re blowing me away.”
Refusing to shy away from deep-seated, complex issues — think racism, white supremacy, fear and paranoia — “Falls for Jodie” is a compassionate study of gun violence, mental health and the radicalization of vulnerable young men, Burford explained. A talkback will follow each performance, examining these all-too-pressing issues that are central to so much unrest worldwide, he said.
“It’s done in the round,” Burford said of the play. “When Eric and I first started talking about it, we wanted to try it that way because it’s such a personal portrait. It’s a very intimate portrait. That means that when we do the talkback at the end, we’ll be facing one another. What we’re looking for is candor and civility, and all the voices that can come to the table.”
With just 44 seats on stage, there is nowhere to hide, Vaughn noted. That applies to the audience, who will surround the actors, as well the issues at hand — which are literally, and figuratively, pushed into the spotlight.
“My whole hope was the audience would have a chance to be a fly on a weird wall of history. To be in the round really puts them in the proper place,” he said. “They are on the wall, and they’re all peering in on this world. It makes it more intimate. It makes it less presentational. It brings out more of the humanity in it, and hopefully it allows audiences to make the journey more personal for themselves.”
“Falls for Jodie” will stage on Thursday, March 7, at 8 p.m. at Guild Hall, located at 158 Main Street in East Hampton. Performances continue on Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m., through March 17. A talkback will follow each performance. Tickets are $20, $18 for members and $10 for students. For more information, call (631) 324-0806 or visit guildhall.org.