The writers in the Baltimore Playwrights Festival have all sorts of day jobs. S.E. Schulze, who wrote "Abraham and Isaac," is an animal keeper at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. When his play mentions hawks, deer and other critters, it's safe to assume he knows what he's talking about.
This intense, Theatrical Mining Company production at the College of Notre Dame of Maryland, however, is actually about another kind of animal. The drama concerns the aftermath of a Columbine-type shooting at a high school in a rural town in New England, and the students who shot their classmates display a disturbing disregard for human life.
Although Schulze's ethically ambitious play definitely has an emotional impact on an audience, it doesn't quite cohere. The three shooters, for instance, only haltingly develop in revealing ways.
One of them, Ethan Brody (Daniel Sakamoto-Wengel), spends a lot of time on stage and gets to open up a bit, but the other two only appear occasionally. Their misguided anger comes across, but little else. It seems like a missed opportunity to probe the psychological underpinnings for such a crime.
Most of the play's time is devoted to a series of conversations between Sheriff Watt (Steve Lichtenstein) and Charlie Barrow (an impressively agitated Howard Berkowitz), whose daughter, Vicki Barrow (Annie Unger), is a student at the high school. Other characters representing parents and religious leaders make appearances, but the play generally keeps a tight focus on the conversations between the sheriff and Charlie.
In the play's opening scenes, Charlie is under arrest and being interrogated by the sheriff. His alleged criminal involvement is quickly made known to the audience, but the specifics are best discovered for one's self.
The playwright does a good job of gradually revealing details about the students and families. Short scenes are skillfully linked, and director Barry Feinstein maintains a psychologically tense mood through all these transitions.
Schulze convincingly pulls us into the criminal and moral implications of a terrible crime, but the script's tone unconvincingly alternates between bluntly spare dialogue and stilted, metaphor-laden speeches.
Although everyday citizens certainly are capable of giving voice to poetically embellished statements and near-scholarly religious references, here it usually sounds like the playwright thematically forcing his own voice on the material.
A related example of how this play's reach exceeds its grasp is that one character's analysis of the Biblical story of Abraham and Isaac fails to logically connect it to the circumstances involved in the high school massacre.
Besides the play's tendency to indulge in rhetorical overkill, this production also relies extensively on recorded music and sound effects to literally underscore what's being said. One could argue that the powerful story does not need such an aural boost, and fortunately the later and much quieter scenes seem to acknowledge as much.
"Abraham and Isaac" runs weekends through Aug. 28 at the College of Notre Dame of Maryland, at 4701 N. Charles Street in Baltimore. Performances are Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 7 p.m. Tickets are $10, except pay-what-you-can on Thursday. For more ticket information, go to http://www.tmc.originalplays.com.