Extremely prolific South Florida playwright Michael McKeever has now written two plays ripped from the headlines, yet humanized for increased impact. His earlier Daniel’s Husband, which concerns itself with gay marriage and the legal complexities of that institution, is off-Broadway-bound this spring.
His latest, called simply After, is about bullying and school violence. It is currently receiving its world premiere at Miami’s Zoetic Stage, but will surely soon be produced at theaters beyond our geographic area.
Consciously or not, After’s premise and opening scene brings to mind the Tony Award-winning French play God of Carnage. It, too, brought together two well-heeled couples whose sons had engaged in a conflict at school. While the earlier play took a comic turn as the parents tried — and failed completely — to maintain an air of civility, McKeever’s play is hardly a laughing matter.
In it, Connie (Jeni Hacker) and Alan (McKeever) Beckman arrive at the Better Homes & Gardens photo-ready house of Julia (Mia Matthews) and Tate (Tom Wahl) Campbell. Connie is fuming over a threatening text that Kyle Campbell has sent their son — “You’re next, faggot” — which earned the teen a three-day suspension from school instead of the expulsion that Connie felt it warranted.
Both Julia and Tate minimize the incident as a boyhood prank, which enrages Connie all the more, as both mothers consider what happened a direct reflection on their parenting skills and worldview. Increasing Connie’s sense of rage is the stuffed deer head and rifle case that dominate the Campbell living room.
The two couples were once friendly when the boys were younger, but they have drifted apart by circumstances and differing levels of affluence. Although their meeting does not lead to fisticuffs, nor does it end in anything approaching reconciliation.
McKeever divides his lean, 100-minute intermissionless play into three movements — “Before,” “During” and “After.” While Kyle’s text threat escalates into deadly action, occurring offstage, it is the aftermath that the two couples have to live with that the playwright is most interested in exploring. Bullying is harmful, but it is the more severe violence it can lead to on which the play hinges. Gun violence is a national crisis, but McKeever wants to focus in on the personal and marital toll it can exact.
Director Stuart Meltzer presumably helped to shape After as it headed to this impressive production, but he certainly contributes mightily in the flawless casting, emotionally fragile performances he drew from the ensemble, and taut pacing throughout.
Each character is well-crafted and three-dimensional, but the play belongs to Matthews’ Julia, who thinks if she can keep her home in pristine order, defer to her husband and indulge her son, she can remain in denial about the imminent violence at her doorstep. The actress projects the perfection her character aspires to, as well as the inner tension she battles to the breaking point. Wahl’s Tate has less stage time, but late in the play he is asked to make a non-verbal emotional transition over a letter he reads, a difficult assignment that he handles expertly.
Hacker all but has steam coming out of her ears in her barely controlled anger, and later an overwhelming sorrow in a performance that is a personal best for the actress. As Alan, McKeever gives himself some articulate speeches of reason, which he manages to make sound spontaneous. The cast’s fifth wheel is the reliable Karen Stephens as a neighbor injected into the dispute as a mediator.
The production values all contribute to bringing this fine script to life, particularly Michael McClain’s impeccable living room set and the very telling wardrobe designed by Angelina Esposito.
We have become accustomed to McKeever walking off with the Carbonell Award for best new work each year and it is unfathomable that he will not win again this year for After. Unless, of course, if he jots off an even better script next week.
AFTER. Zoetic Stage at the Carnival Studio Theater, Adrienne Arsht Center, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami. Through Sunday. $50 and $55. 305-949-6722.