The statistics are dark. Assaults by firearms kill about 13,000 people in the U.S. each year, according to the National Safety Council. How can victims heal? Can perpetrators rehabilitate themselves? The Assignment, playing at Luna Stage until December 9, explores the aftermath of gun violence and how those affected can move forward.
Playwright Camilo Almonacid tells a poignant story through two vivid characters and some classic pieces of literature. The play is based the play on real conversations between people who committed gun violence and their victims.
Rafael Poueriet is wonderful as Julian, a well-read and affable undergrad student pushing 40. He’s attending the fictional Davis University in New York City on a scholarship. Julian missed his first Literature class because of delays on his NJ Transit train (the audience knowingly laughed at that reference) and tries to patch things up with his teacher by bringing a cannoli to her office. Professor Helen Payne, played by Antu Yacob, sees through Julian’s ploy. She initially comes off as tough and suspicious. But as the play develops, Yacob reveals Helen’s generosity.
Julian is charismatic, but also desperate. His scholarship is contingent on his attendance. Professor Payne begrudgingly says she won’t report this absence but admonishes him not to miss another class.
Deeper Scars Revealed
David Winitsky does a nice job directing the exchanges between Julian and professor Payne. Their animated conversations in the classroom touch on works by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Shirley Jackson and Virginia Wolfe. They tackle themes such as: whether our fate is determined by chance or luck; accepting mortality and is can there be social justice in our country. Outside of the classroom, their conversations center on each other’s past and how they’re trying to move forward.
For his first writing piece, Julian explains some of the scars on his body. We learn from future assignments that he has deeper scars. Julian’s stepdad abused his mom and his stepbrothers abused him by beating him with soap bars in socks and urinating in his sneakers. Julian and his mom left that poisonous relationship, spending time in a homeless shelter. Later Julian tells Helen he did time in prison for shooting a young man to get his coat. Helen asked him how he felt after pulling the trigger. Julian says he felt like the world swallowed him up. Now he’s on parole and the victim’s family is chasing him down to exact revenge.
Helping Each Other Heal
Helen lost her son ten years earlier to gun violence. She is a strong and proud, yet sensitive. Helen has a complex relationship with Julian, but his friendship helps her heal. Nevertheless, after all these years, there are things she still can’t overcome.
Because the characters are strong, David Goldstein’s sets do more with less. A simple desk and chairs are surrounded by stacks of books. This serves as Helen’s office and classroom. A coffee can with cigarette butts helps us imagine Helen’s outside refuge for smoking breaks.
The Assignment shows how two people affected by gun violence begin to put their lives back together by using the lens of literature to make sense out of the tragedy. They find hope in each other. It is a celebration of life.