by Jeannie Marlin Woods
Robin Gerber’s play, “The Shot”, is a shocking and visceral new work. Its limited run June 16-19 at the Great Barrington Public Theater is sure to stand out as a highlight of the 2022 Berkshire theatre season. A collaboration between GBPT and Spark Theatrical and playwright Gerber, director/dramaturg Michelle Joyner, and actor Sharon Lawrence, “The Shot” is an incredible achievement and unforgettable theatre.
Gerber’s new play and is based on her 2005 book, Katharine Graham: The Leadership Journey of an American Icon.Graham was a renowned publisher who took the helm at The Washington Post in the wake of the suicide of her husband (and former publisher of The Post), Phil Graham. Over the next twenty years, she built The Post into a major newspaper, publishing the Pentagon Papers, which ultimately led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon.
The play, however, focuses on Graham’s personal suffering at the hand of her husband, who abused her physically and psychological through the 23 years of their marriage. Playwright Gerber is a social activist and her play confronts domestic violence with unflinching resolve. As the play unfolds, we search for a reason—how could such a wealthy, intelligent and educated woman subject herself to a such a cruel and dangerous man? We learn about Katharine’s early jobs as a newspaper reporter in Chicago and San Francisco. She takes us through the meeting and falling in love with the charismatic Phil Graham. She relives the horrible scene of losing her virginity in a brutal rape by the man she adored and would soon after marry.
Even allowing for the fact that they married in 1940 and Katharine was raised under the cultural norm to subject herself to her husband’s will, she was not without resources to walk away. But that was (and is) the tragedy of domestic abuse and sadly that has not changed much with the times. Statistically, an abused spouse leaves her abuser seven times before being able to break the cycle—if she survives it at all. Katharine raises four children, leads a glittering public life with the top political and social icons of the day, cheerfully backgrounds herself when her husband is in the spotlight, even as her home life is isolated and perilous. She stays in the marriage.
Rather than offering justification for Graham’s choices, Gerber’s play reveals the insecurities and social norms that lock this woman into her situation. Katharine accepts her place is in the home and she relates the softer moments—joy with her children, the solace of forgiveness in the wake of violence, and love. “What is love?” she asks. Her answer is that it is a longing for something lost that you hope you can find again.
What emerges is the character of a woman of incredible strength when faced with her husband’s suicide. Step by painful step she recalls his mental breakdown, institutionalization, and abject silence when he returns home, where he soon shot and killed himself. Devastated, Katharine relives “the shot” that ended that era of her life and leads—within a matter of days—to her taking her “shot” when she becomes publisher of The Washington Post and devotes her life to telling the truth. At a time when women were expected to be seen and not heard, Graham rises above the ashes of her personal tragedy to build an institution with that vision, to win awards and tremendous esteem (including a Pulitzer Prize for her memoir), and to help change the course of history.
It is no easy thing to condense this larger-than-life story into 75 minutes, told by a solo performer. Gerber has written a brilliant script and, fortunately, the highly acclaimed stage and screen star Sharon Lawrence is more than equal to the task. From the moment she enters, we are drawn into the story and mesmerized by the character and the performance. Lawrence doesn’t merely narrate the story; she completely immerses herself and her audience into this complicated and fascinating character. She clearly distinguishes Katharine from Phil and from her mother when she imitates them at times—transforming voice and body to make us easily envision these people who molded her personality. Lawrence digs deeply into the rough and dirty reality of the violence and brutality, but soars in the moments where hope and love buoy her and get her through the day. She doesn’t rush a moment; we see it as she sees it and we find compassion for her and perhaps even for the man who abused her so. It is a phenomenal performance.
Certainly, much of the credit goes to Michelle Joyner—both director and dramaturg of “The Shot”. Joyner not only stages the play with great elegance and skill, but she creates a believable world for the play using the simplest of means—an iconic desk, a chaise, a chair. Her vision is completed by the design team—Brian Barnett’s lighting design is subtle and evocative. Jacob Morgan Fisch provides an excellent sound score that supports each crucial moment. Although no costumer is credited, Graham’s simple peach dress and flat shoes and classic hairstyle (coordinated by George Veale) make it all feel authentic, so we cannot look away.
“The Shot” is great theatre because it has tremendous potential for increasing our understanding of such an important social issue. In the end, at least for some, there is hope to transcend the violence and psychological pain and to go on to fulfill one’s true destiny. A big factor in making that happen is facing the stark reality of domestic abuse. The creative team did, in fact, film “The Shot” and donate the film to domestic violence organizations across the country, raising thousands of dollars for both the centers and small theatres who showed the film.
In only its second season, Great Barrington Public Theater is firmly establishing a high bar for excellence in theatre in the region. If only the run could have been extended so more local audiences could have seen this production. As it is, those audiences who came were richly rewarded.
Playwright: Robin Gerber
Director/Dramaturg: Michelle Joyner
Cast: Sharon Lawrence as Katharine Graham
Lighting Design: Brian Barnett
Makeup/Wig Coordination: George Veale
Sound Coordination: Jacob Morgan Fisch
“The Shot” runs June 16-19, 2022. Thursday through Sunday 7:30 p.m. & 3 p.m. Tickets at 413-528-0684. Website: greatbarringtonpublictheater.org.
Running Time: 75 minutes with no intermission at Liebowitz Black Box Theater, Bard College at Simon’s Rock, 84 Alford Road, Great Barrington, MA. Closing June 19th.