Stage play The Why is presented as a series of abstract vignettes woven around a school shooter in prison. The students that survive his random act of violence, a murder-obsessed new station called Murder News, and the teenage shooter’s therapy in prison are documented throughout. It’s a heavy hour of dark comedy that tries to contemplate the biggest question surrounding school shooters. Why?
The Why was written in 2003 by Victor Kaufold, and the writing really shows its age. The midway point of the Bush era was a completely different time for mass shootings in America. Yes, plenty of the issues on display in the production, like the fetishistic view toward violence in the media, are still present today. But we as consumers and participants in these debates have heard these societal critiques an endless number of times since the play’s first performance. And it hurts the message of The Why considerably. It’s difficult to listen when we’ve heard the jokes about “redneck” Americans being in love with their guns 100 times before the lights dimmed. By the time the play dives deep for an answer as to why school shootings are so prevalent, the audience seemed too tuned out to hear it.
The actors are doing their best with the material, succeeding in a few sincere laughs. A gun-toting action hero cop presents the best line during a stand-off at the beginning of the play. One character tells him to eat shit. “I would, but I had fast food for lunch,” the cop sneers without self-awareness. Right after that, he catches a bullet between two fingers.
One of the things The Why gets right is how sympathetic the school shooter, Robert, is. He’s mentally disturbed, seeing a dog sing country tunes, but shows actual remorse for one of his victims. At the end of the day, he’s a scared teenager who believes he can’t attain redemption for what he’s done. Maybe he can’t, but it’s tough to see his last act in the play as anything but him searching for penance.
But, then it gets the therapist all wrong. People who frequent therapy offices know what’s incorrect. The man who’s supposed to help Robert is quick to anger, is combative, yells at him, lacks finesse in how he convinces the teen to open up — basically the antithesis of a therapist.
Let’s be honest, a negative portrayal of a therapist is not going to solve frequent school shootings.
The Why had solid production values. The masks that the characters wore created a sense of fantasy and disconnection, making it sting just a little bit more when someone realizes that this fake planet on stage is similar to our own. The stripped down feeling of the set also let the audience imagine plenty. This aided the feeling of a Twilight Zone dimension.
In the end, Rod Serling’s classic fantasy series might be a good comparison for The Why. Some moments work, some of it didn’t, but it held your attention for most of its runtime. At its best, it was meditative and at its worst it was preachy.