Early on in Synchronicity Theatre’s production of “Ripe Frenzy,” Zoe (played by Taylor Dooley) stands amid overturned chairs and other disarray on a high school stage in fictional Tavistown, N.Y., and starts describing recent events there. The school is “famous for putting on the most productions of Thornton Wilder’s ‘Our Town,’” Zoe, a proud alum and the mother of a student who was involved in this year’s production, relates as she straightens furniture and reveals that record number:
“40, 39. Well, 39 and two-thirds.”
She struggles to maintain her composure. To the Synchronicity audience, it’s a signal that something unimaginable must have happened.
And yet, everyone already knows this story in a way.
“‘Our Town’ is supposed to take place in Everytown, America,” said Jennifer Barclay, “Ripe Frenzy’s” playwright. “Right now, it feels like this is our Everytown.”
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Opening here Friday as part of a National New Play Network “rolling world premiere,” the play tells the story of a mass school shooting during a production of Wilder’s quintessential small-town American drama. “Ripe Frenzy” focuses more on Tavistown’s adults than on the perpetrator, and the shooting itself is never shown onstage. Indeed, guns and the debate surrounding them are only infrequently mentioned in the play, which depicts a tragedy from all sides, most notably through the characters of three mothers and lifelong friends who are each pulled into the event in different ways.
“Really, it’s looking at what does it mean to be in a community and to take responsibility for each other,” Synchronicity co-founder and “Ripe Frenzy” director Rachel May said of the play that moves back and forth in time and includes media projections by Obie Award-winning designer Jared Mezzocchi that add to the sense of knowing and not knowing what goes on in people’s heads.
“It’s really important that I raise questions instead of providing answers,” Barclay said. “The question that is preoccupying our country right now, is trying to understand why each (shooter) has done this and why they keep doing it.”
Still, the play arrives at a time when the subject of mass shootings is more high-profile — and the debate more highly charged — than ever.
“I think there’s an appetite to learn about and engage around this topic that Parkland and these other shootings are feeding,” May said, referring to the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida that killed 17 people and inspired the #NeverAgain movement and marches. “The responsibility we have is to ensure that we are not capitalizing on or exploiting that in any way, but rather, engaging as openly and honestly as we can.”
There will be a moderated discussion after every performance, and a two-hour community roundtable before the April 21 show is aimed at “working towards some common solutions, not just (people) complaining and attacking each other,” May said. (You can attend that without a play ticket.) And in response to requests from some high school guidance counselors, a special student matinee is slated for 10:30 a.m. April 27 (see box for prices). “Ripe Frenzy” is recommended for ages 13 and up.
Synchronicity has even recruited several dozen volunteers from all over the community to reach out to people and encourage them to attend. These “Synchronizers,” as they’ve been dubbed, attended an early read-through of “Ripe Frenzy” and have continued to receive articles and other materials to help them talk about the play and its subject matter.
“The play actually is not deep and dark the entire time; it has some funny, wonderful bits,” May said. “We wanted to make sure as much as possible people know that and are not scared to come.”
In fact, it’s easy to relate to the three women and their friendship that’s lasted through thick and thin and character quirks like college professor Miriam’s (Megan Cramer) whipping out a line of Rumi poetry for every occasion — but which may or may not survive all this. Like most adults today, these moms question their teens’ seeming obsession with technology. But even on a camping trip, the trio can’t stop themselves from checking their own phones for the latest details on yet another school shooting that’s just happened halfway across the country.
In a way, the “Ripe Frenzy” folks already know that part of the story, too.
Days before the play’s Boston premiere on Feb. 24, Barclay found herself having to update a section that explores the weird notoriety some mass shooters achieve to include the accused Parkland killer’s name. And Synchronicity’s cast began rehearsing on the same day one more fatal school shooting happened in Maryland.
“I guess I couldn’t have imagined that it would become any more urgent and relevant than it already was.”