Dallas — Playwright Thomas Ward recently relocated with his family from Dallas to Atlanta. During his time here, one of his plays, International Falls, was chosen for WaterTower Theatre’s Out of the Loop Fringe Festival. It won “best of the fest” and lived to see more stages and eventually a translation to film, opening as an Indie in 2019. The world premiere of Ward’s latest play, Slide By, has opened the 2020 season of the AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Elevator Project. Independent producer and director Jake Nice brings this play to the Sixth Floor Studio Theatre at the Wyly Theatre.
Without overtly saying so, this play peeks inside of the predominantly white suburban male youth experiences which have real challenges whether contemporary society has empathy for them or not.
The action in Slide By takes place in Centennial, Colorado, one week after the Columbine school shooting in Littleton. Centennial is approximately 15 miles from Littleton. High school graduate and 1994-95 school wrestling champion Chad Squier (Jon Garrard) has been assigned to his old high school as a substitute teacher. Actually, the way the sub system works in that district, subs can request specific schools. Chad’s assignment isn’t random. It is his choice.
One might think that a champion athlete would receive a warm welcome but the response from those who greet him is one of uneasy surprise. Unbeknownst to Chad, the school has received threats of a copycat attack. Most of the teachers stayed home which resulted in a higher than usual number of subs being on campus, something Chad learns during a conversation with another first-day sub, Susan (Sydney Lo). As the Centennial staffers wonder why Chad has returned, the questions before the audience are what happened while he was a student, and should we be concerned?
Chad first finds high school friends Dave (Cory Kosel) who is now the school’s custodian, and Matt (Jeremy LeBlanc). Awkwardly they attempt to pick up where they left off as kids, sort of. There is no avoiding office manager Miss Weems (Cindee Mayfield), or administrator Mrs. Davis (Detra Payne). At some point Chad has to and does finally see Coach Carl Perkins (Brian Witkowicz).
Billed as a dark comedy, it is Miss Weems who shoulders most of that responsibility. Mayfield masterfully delivers each word with vinegary weight. Lo is engaging and makes her character more interesting than the words on the page suggest. With her, Susan becomes a character about whom one wants to know more. Davis nails the profile of a school administrator (Payne) in tone, mannerism and energy.
Gerrard is tasked with exhibiting reticence in returning to his old school, embarrassment at living at home with his parents, and lingering guilt over the suicide of a high school friend, Tim, and something else to be revealed later. Perhaps in an attempt to portray Chad’s uneasiness, it took a few minutes at the beginning for a rhythm to be established, but once there, Garrard kept the energy moving toward the story’s wanted yet dreaded denouement.
This is a story happening during the aftermath of a school shooting but not everything happening with the main character is shooting-related. Cue the relationship between coach and athlete and a theme which is arguably the core. Some might say, unfairly or not, that wrestling is exhibit A for toxic masculinity. But what is masculinity?
The topic is school shootings. Everyone is on edge, all are suspect, understandably. In that sense, it is a perfect setup for the Chad character because one is not certain what to expect from him. This makes for a good storyline, creating tension and intrigue, and leaving enough room for complexity that a sub-theme provides. The wrestling coach provides that.
However, this is also a script for an audience that will know school wrestling terminology and symbology, and who will have an awareness of popular culture references from that time. As a newer work untried before an audience, it tells an important story through a lens infrequently seen, that of millennials. The handling of the athlete avoids the stereotype of a big, crude, handsomely ignorant guy who never grows up. Chad is not that guy, something Garrard punctuates through his physicality and delivery.
The playing area (scenic design by Justin Locklear) is configured as a narrow landing strip with audience on the long sides. On the floor are painted one complete circle and one circle built of arcs, which I now understand are references to school wrestling. That long strip provides three playing areas which works well not only in distinguishing location, but also placing the protagonist, Chad, at the center. It bolsters the push and pull in the script and for the main character.
The projections (Bart McGeehon, designer) are useful because they provide important contextual information, relieving the characters of having to do so.
Not everyone affords much (if any) sympathy or empathy to young, white suburban males, especially those who have enjoyed a measure of success or status, and especially if they stumble or commit crimes. It is too easy to contrast their lot (think "affluenza") with that of minority males and in that comparison, men such as Chad, lose. Indeed, the data show there is an increase in suicide attempts among black males. There are vociferous arguments over the fairness of all of this. Are the Chads not allowed to have identity crises too? This play is saying yes, like it or not, they do. There must be space for them in the greater conversation if we are to identify a solution to the problems with school shootings.
According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, white males accounted for 69.67 percent of suicides in 2017. Over half of suicides were by firearm. Can we make deductions from those two data points? Not credibly, no. But we can understand the importance of Slide By and the conversations it will hopefully inspire. Score more points for independent producers and new plays.