Review: “columbinus” from The Yard at Steppenwolf

Review: “columbinus” from The Yard at Steppenwolf

Photo: The cast of “columbinus” | Evan Hanover

By Erin Shea Brady

In “columbinus,” Eric Harris (played in The Yard’s powerful production by Ervin Tobar) is being questioned by his teacher (Joel Ewing). As is common in the piece, we shift from lecture to inner monologue and get a terrifying glimpse into the mind of a student who will soon commit one of the deadliest school shootings in US history.

“You are not equipped to handle what is going on inside of me,” Harris proclaims in his rage. This is the throughline, and it is bone-chilling.

Mechelle Moe’s production of Stephen Karam and PJ Paparelli’s docudrama, devised from a series of discussions with survivors of the 1999 mass murder at Columbine High School in Littleton, CO, does not claim to offer any one-size-fits-all solution or an easy answer to gun violence, because there isn’t one. Moe and her exceptional cast, instead, offer insight, urgency, empathy, and a brutal exploration of the complexity of the epidemic.

The piece starts with Parkland and works backward, in a series of clips and sound bites that, twenty years after Columbine, are dominating our Facebook feeds. The play’s context and importance are apparent before we sit down in the theater. We know where the story is headed, but to watch these young performers live out this horrifyingly familiar narrative takes us out of the headlines and into the heart, confusion, and pain of high school. The way in which we (the adults) are not equipped to handle what is going on inside of our teenagers extends beyond gun violence, and Moe’s production, with movement direction by Dana Murphy, gives voice to all sorts of irreversible, life-changing decisions that our teenagers have the capacity to make, ranging from self-injury to crime to sexual violence.

Teenagers are societally dismissed as hormonal, angsty, moody, too sensitive, peer-pressured, self-absorbed, dramatic, emotional, the list goes on. We rarely recognize the intensity of their experiences, from social and academic pressures to struggles of self-worth and the hustle for validation, surrounded by the judgment and belittlement of their peers. Yes, teenagers are hormonal and yes, there are things going on in their bodies and brains that are largely invisible to the adults around them; but their experiences are as real, as valid, and as volatile as our own, and to dismiss their reality is to dehumanize them.

Our teens are not to be undervalued and they are not to be underestimated. They have the capacity to make devastating, irreversible decisions and, also, deeply impactful change. Platforms and programs like The Yard are giving young people an outlet and a voice; a community, and with it, the opportunity to develop a sense of self in the midst of all of the pressure, torment, and fear.

“columbinus” does not simply fault bullying or negligence for the atrocities in Littleton. The Yard’s production doesn’t assert that any of this is simple. The death count since Columbine pulses underneath Moe’s production, which begs us (the adults) to join our young people in conversation.

We have so much work to do. We are so afraid to be uncomfortable, so desperate for the simple fix, so caught up in our political ideology that we forget to listen and learn. These teenagers, these next -generation activists and changemakers, have so much to say and their safety hangs in the balance. This bold ensemble of actors, as heartfelt and nuanced as those with much more experience, lays it all on the line, demanding and earning our undivided attention, support, and action.

I’m grateful to The Yard and to Steppenwolf’s LookOut Series for giving voice to this story so poignantly and so forcefully. Please show up. Please engage. Please let this complicated work in so you may be moved to respond.

About author

Erin Shea Brady

Erin Shea Brady is a contributing writer and critic at PerformInk and Newcity Stage. Directing credits include: Everybody (Brown Paper Box Co.) and Cabaret, Annapurna (staged reading) and The Rise and Fall of Little Voice (No Stakes Theater Project). Erin has assistant directed and dramaturged productions at the Goodman, Jackalope, TimeLine, A Red Orchid, Northlight, and Remy Bumppo. Erin is a graduate of the directing program at Columbia College Chicago, the internship program at Steppenwolf, Jackalope's inaugural Playwright's Lab, and participated in the Goodman's Criticism in a Changing America bootcamp. Erin is a company member with Brown Paper Box Co. and is currently pursuing her MSW at Loyola.