Ruby is a woman who believes in straight shooting– and after her daughter’s death, she runs a successful gun business whose sales skyrocket whenever there is a tragedy. She names her products – The Mallwalker, The Babysitter, etc. – according to women who ostensibly saved lives by defending themselves with guns. His latest product, The Secretary, is named after Shirley, a public school secretary who brings a gun to school with dire consequences. And there you have it: award-winning playwright Kyle John Schmidt’s dark comedy set-up set in Ruby’s office in a small town in rural America.
Let me say right off the bat that this is a stellar cast. Ruby is played by Alice M. Gatling brilliantly, and easily maneuvers between the comedic line and the serious moment, a tightrope that all these actresses have to walk in this intense piece. The problem isn’t with Gatling’s performance, nor with any performance of this puzzling confrontation with American gun culture. Ruby believes in guns as a protection for women, and her entrepreneurial success has become a dramatically ironic lifeline.
Celeste Roberts also stars as Shirley, the secretary whose obsession with children in school betrays an understandable neuroticism in a small town of limited options. Her edgy manners and hilarious manners pair perfectly with Macy Lyne’s perfect costumes. Never have polyester pants and large glasses and barrettes combined so well to embody Shirley’s respectability and indiscreet manners. When she comes back frankly on what really happened when a struggling student named Dusty is gunned down at school, one begins to understand why Schmidt thinks no one should own a gun: It almost never goes well, at least in the world of this piece.
Office worker Lorrie is linked to Brandy (a broadcast error from Briana J. Resa), whose son was shot in high school. But Brandy doesn’t seem so broken about it, seriously undermining the script’s emotional trajectory. She just wants some sort of ROI, but her lack of empathy for her own son’s death is just weird. Perhaps this is a signal from the playwright that gun deaths are such a normal part of our culture that we have become oblivious to it? Not sure.
Skyler Sinclair as April is a college dropout who divorces her professor husband. The problem is, she’s completely against guns and really is kind of a frequent protester, yet, strangely enough, she’s applying to be a secretary for Ruby’s Gun Company. Sinclair is a wonderful actress, and like with most actors, I love watching her take on such a bizarre role. But our potential sympathies and empathies with characters reacting to the vicissitudes of America’s love / hate relationship with guns are completely strewn with nonsense like this. I know it’s a comedy, but it still has to make sense.
Elizabeth Marshall Black is fascinating as the frustrated and nervous Janelle, whose role as manager of Ruby’s office is constantly frustrated by Lorrie’s hijacks, hilariously played by Bree Welch. These two are comedy gold, which says a lot in a play whose dark humor is sometimes so dark it’s almost impossible to laugh at. When Janelle hopes that a great tragedy will increase sales not only for the company, but also for the struggling community, it’s almost too much. We giggle or grimace, but maybe that’s what Schmidt is trying to argue.
Anyway, with the Santa Fe shooting that happened not so long ago and not that far from Houston, I wondered why Main Street had chosen this particular room. The stereotypical rural boor Lorrie represents is fun to watch, with her overalls and bold lines and an accent you’ll never forget. She claims she’s not ‘stupid’, and of course that’s true in a way, and the last scene of the play emphasizes that you shouldn’t underestimate those who appear lower in. the social scale. There are so many competing trajectories of social criticism that it’s hard to keep your head from spinning.
Yet there are so many hard knocks of fate, so many coincidences that the script demands of the actors, that I was blown away by how everyone handled such a delicate play. This is the main thing about The Secretary: You’ve got some of Houston’s best actresses giving character acting masterclasses, negotiating light and dark comedy in a fascinating way. And they’re doing it with a subject that’s just not funny.
At times there are traces of drama of the absurd, at others social satire at its best, and then there are moments of straight comedy that work well as we have come to know the quirks and ambitions of the characters who enter and leave Ruby’s office. But the overall effect is a play that lacks a clear identity and, although it demands a lot from the cast and audience, seems to backfire on the style of the play which overshadows the social criticism it attempts. to employ. I don’t think anyone changes their mind about gun control after this production. But you are sure Houston has some awesome actresses who can hit you with their best shot any day of the week.