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Conflicting 'Truths' About Tragedy Play Out on NY Stage

"The Library" actors Chloë Grace Moretz, Michael O'Keefe, and Jennifer Westfeldt.
"The Library" actors Chloë Grace Moretz, Michael O'Keefe, and Jennifer Westfeldt.
— Americans last week dealt with another seemingly unprovoked school attack - this one by a Pittsburgh student with two kitchen knives. New York theater-goers have a chance to explore the emotion surrounding these events.

The Library, a new play at New York’s Public Theater, unfolds after a school shooting and peers into the shattered lives of the survivors, and the stories they tell.  The play is directed by Oscar-winner Steven Soderbergh, and written by Scott Z. Burns, who has worked with Soderbergh on three films, before they turned their attention to the stage. 

Even before the play begins, Soderbergh and Burns make the audience uneasy.  When you enter the theater, a young woman in a hospital gown lies center stage on what could be a table or a bed or a slab in the morgue, said playwright Scott Z. Burns.

"People start having to invent, you know, which is: Is she alive?  Is she not alive?  And so they’re already, before we’ve said anything, experiencing what the play is about, which is, you know, you start assembling facts and truths into stories that support your belief set and allow you to keep going," said Burns.

Once the play starts, the audience discovers that the young woman onstage is a high school sophomore named Caitlin Gabriel and, although she’s survived a violent massacre, one of the other survivors has gone on TV and accused her of telling the gunman where several victims were hiding. 

"And so Caitlin Gabriel wakes up out of her induced coma, basically, and she finds out right then and there that not only is her best friend that she was laying beside dead, but that she’s now being accused of being an accomplice to the murder of six children and one faculty member," said 17-year-old film actress Chlöe Grace Moretz who is making her stage debut as Caitlin.

As the characters attempt to untangle the truth, each of them, kids and parents, try to control the narrative, often publicly, on television and in newspapers.

Director Steven Soderbergh has seen that happen after real massacres.

"We were fascinated by not only the idea of competing stories that have to do battle, but also another story or another myth that often comes out of events like these is that somehow everyone who goes through a tragedy is somehow ennobled by it, if they survive," he said. "And we were interested in sort of proposing a more realistic version of that story, which is: some people that go through tragedies like this are just damaged."

It was the story of one survivor of the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado that prompted Scott Z. Burns to write the play.  He recalled that shortly after the massacre, in which two students killed 12 of their classmates and a teacher, misinformation about some of the victims and survivors began to proliferate.

"So when stories get out - you know, especially now when we have a lot of unfiltered media that finds its way into our eyes and ears very quickly after these things - it’s hard to get it back," Burns explained.

Actress Chlöe Grace Moretz puts it even more simply.

"It’s like the whisper game you play at camp, you know, where one person whispers at the other end of the table and then they all whisper the same thing and then by the end of it, you find out it’s a completely different story," she said.

The playwright and director chose not to focus on the gunman.  If there’s an antagonist in the story, it’s the mother of one of the victims, who deals with her loss by writing a book and consulting on a film, both of which sanctify her daughter and accuse Caitlin of leading the gunman to other victims.

Throughout the play, as new information about the characters and events is revealed, director Steven Soderbergh said audience members begin to question their own beliefs.

"The story sort of comes at you in waves, you know what I mean?  Like we experience the news cycle - sort of every scene there’s another shoe that drops and you go, “Oh boy.  Now I have to rethink what I’ve been watching,” he said.

The posters for The Library say the play is “based on future events.”  And, unfortunately, as recent events have illustrated, that may prove all too true.

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