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(photo by Joan Marcus)

Marin Ireland is captivating in harrowing new play by Martín Zimmerman (photo by Joan Marcus)

Black Box Theatre
Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre
111 West 46th St. between Sixth & Seventh Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through April 2, $25

About fifteen minutes into Martín Zimmerman’s shattering On the Exhale, there’s a collective gasp from the audience. The show’s lone character, an unnamed woman portrayed with extraordinary grace and dignity by Marin Ireland, has just revealed the tragic event that forever changed her life. For the rest of the hour-long play, there is an almost unbearable silence from the audience as the woman shares her harrowing story in the Roundabout’s basement Black Box Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center. No one shifts in their seat, unwraps candy, coughs; you can’t even hear a breath until, near the end, there’s one cathartic laugh that makes it all feel even more real. The woman is a high school teacher and single mother who has a dream/nightmare that one of her students might attack her with a gun; then, her actions following an actual mass shooting are completely unexpected and utterly haunting. Rachel Hauck’s set consists only of a long, rectangular metal floor and ceiling that look like they’re closing in on the woman, echoing the psychological prison she is trapped in. On one side of the stage is Jen Schriever’s lighting grid of sixteen spots that fade in and out on the woman as she speaks directly to the audience in the second person, as if the events are happening to everyone, implicating us all. Zimmerman (Seven Spots on the Sun, Let Me Count the Ways) takes on issues of parenting, politics, education, sexuality, feminism, the media, and, most significantly, gun violence in starkly intelligent and understated ways, while Leigh Silverman (Violet, In the Wake) directs with a captivating subtlety. Tony nominee Ireland’s (reasons to be pretty, Ironbound) every movement, from the lifting of a hand to the stretch of a finger, from a pause in the darkness to a stare into the distance, is packed with emotional power. It’s a gently frightening, boldly courageous performance. When the play is over, actress and audience can finally take a much-needed deep exhale, and Ireland unleashes a cleansing, heart-wrenching smile. It’s an unforgettable, exhilarating conclusion to a terrifying play that reveals an America that is all too familiar.

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