This past weekend, I had the privilege to experience a theatrical production unlike most others. 'After,' written by internationally produced and award winning playwright Michael McKeever and directed by Stuart Meltzer, portrays a story about modern day bullies from a completely new angle. Set on the Zoetic Stage at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, the play tastefully melds modern societal expectations of families and their emotions following major tragedies like school shootings. Perhaps what delineates this production the most in my eyes was how well timed it was given the current issues. By definition, zoetic refers to anything pertaining to real life. Founded in 2010 by McKeever and friends with the goal of nurturing and showcasing contemporary theatrical works, this unique setting literally brings the audience into the lives of the characters. Lacking the traditional elevated stage and framing curtains, the zoetic stage allows the audience and actors to remain on the same plane, free to feel as natural parts of the production instead of as onlookers.
Segmented into three parts, the play revolves around the small nuances of both families and alludes how each family may have influenced the roles each boy took on in the incident. With detailed depictions of the 'perfect' family featuring the well-to-do matriarch Julia Campbell, played by Mia Matthews, and Jeni Hacker's starkly contrasted overprotective character Connie Beckman, McKeever toes the line between perception and reality as each family tries to blame the other for a lack of insight into the minds of their teenage boys. Yet the plot is not simply based on the facts, for it also juggles the elusive concepts of perfection, embodied by Julia. This idea of the idyllic lifestyle and family is exactly what she grapples with throughout the play, and it proves to be especially essential when she is forced to face the fact that her son is someone she couldn't imagine him to be. Heavy and chilling, McKeever pits family against family in what seems to be a war on ignorant parents and violent teens but ultimately blooms into a deep empathetic take on the aftermath of a devastating tragedy. Julia's quiet evolution from perfectionist mother with a need to appear righteous in everyone's eyes to paranoid and heartbroken mother in denial clearly portrays just how much of a toll shootings can have on the family of the shooter, not just the victim. Coupled with the smart separation of movements, imaginative set design and telling costume choices, 'After' is meticulously crafted and touches both the heart and the eye. No action, prop or tone of voice is overlooked.
I don't typically indulge in dramas, but I admit that I couldn't hold back tears, especially during one of the many astonishingly impactful long stretches of silence when all that is at work is the actors' emotions. After witnessing such raw emotions first hand, I can genuinely say that I will no longer be so quick to judge new works. Given the level of seriousness and considering the protests that were being held right outside of the theater, no other play has ever been such a stark representation of reality. As heavy as the emotions are throughout, the beginning is as inventive and intriguing as any quality comedy, setting up a great contrast. Perhaps what struck me the most is just how inventive McKeever is with the clever backstories and how well he crafts a 90 minute production out of essentially five characters and one set design. Every scene and gesture and word is artfully timed and carries well throughout as the piece progresses, almost unnoticed. These 90 minutes are probably simultaneously the shortest and the longest 90 minutes of theatrical mastery I've ever sat through.
While the production has run its course at Arsht, I encourage anyone interested in deeply moving and inventive theater to follow @ZoeticStageMIA on Twitter as McKeever himself does not currently have a Twitter handle.