THEATRE REVIEW: Gun Control Under Fire in Roseburg at New City Stage

Ginger Dayle’s heartfelt work-in-progress has gotten more attention than perhaps even its creator wants.

Ross Widdall and Joshua Tewell in Roseburg at New City Stage Company. (Photo by Alex Lowy)

Ross Widdall and Joshua Tewell in Roseburg at New City Stage Company. (Photo by Alex Lowy)

It’s a widely-held belief that in theater, there’s no such thing as bad publicity.  I wonder what Ginger Dayle would say to that?

Dayle conceived (through devised work with her ensemble cast) and directed Roseburg, a heartfelt work-in-progress play that recounts, in a parallel structure, two events in Roseburg, Oregon — a 2015 shooting at a community college, and a 1968 speech on gun control by then-presidential candidate Robert Kennedy.

Almost as soon as the title and concept were announced, Dayle became the target of hate mail. Much of it came from Roseburg residents, who feared their city would be portrayed negatively.  None of them had read or seen Roseburg, mind you — but that didn’t stop them from opining, in scathing if not entirely literate terms.  The messages Dayle received — many of them in public Facebook posts — is exactly the kind of tone that I imagine the letter writer’s feared Dayle herself would take.

Here’s what none of them got right. Though Roseburg is very clearly a plea for stronger gun laws, it’s rational and balanced.  Dayle depicts the gun advocates even-handedly, giving voice to their concerns. On the other end of the spectrum, Bobby Kennedy here emerges as sometimes callow and self-aggrandizing. The most over-the-top moment is, in fact, provided by the NRA — a TV commercial (the production makes use of archival footage) that would be laugh-out-loud funny if it weren’t so frightening.

Back to the publicity question. The irony, of course, is that the protest has brought national attention to Roseburg.  When I saw the show on Thursday evening, with a close to full-house audience, Dayle was about to be interviewed by a Portland newspaper.

In a positive sense, it’s good when a small theater gets a lot of attention, and this throws more light on an issue of national urgency.  But as Dayle is the first to say (she mentions it in her pre-show welcome), it’s a workshop production.

Roseburg as seen here is over-long.  Some of it looks under-rehearsed, and some parts work better than others.  For me, the end of the first act — an interestingly-staged account of chat-room activity — should be cut by half or more; there’s also too much backstory about Robert Kennedy, though it gives actor Russ Widdall an opportunity to reprise a character that he has made very much his own.

But the basic idea is smart and sobering.  By juxtaposing Kennedy’s speech and the much later school shooting, we can’t help but realize that what seems now like a front-burner issue has, in fact, been smoldering for more than half a century.  Consensus and progress seem very far away, though Dayle’s tone has an undercurrent of hopefulness.

I don’t know what the future will bring for Roseburg.  I hope Dayle continues to work on it, and my guess is that with all the publicity, there will be interest in producing it elsewhere.

Of this, I’m sadly certain — even looking years ahead, it will be very, very timely.

Roseburg runs through July 31; for more information, visit the New City Stage website.