A new play being produced by Portland’s Dramatic Repertory Company tackles the hot-button issues of mass shootings and conspiracy theories. DRC will give “False Flag,” on stage in the studio theater at Portland Stage through June 10, its world premiere.
The production includes Sarabeth Connelly, Corey M. Gagne, Bess Welden and Marjolaine Whittlesey, and tells the story of a woman who gets caught up in conspiracy theories after her brother is killed, off stage, in a random shooting. It’s a play that touches on talk radio, survivalism and deep-web forums.
Walt McGough, a Boston playwright, began thinking about the play after the school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012 that resulted in the deaths of 20 school children and six adult staff members.
“Within 24 hours, there was large movement of people who didn’t think it actually happened,” McGough said by phone. “Parents of kids killed at the school were getting calls and emails and people were showing up demanding they admit they were not who they said they were, that they were crisis actors. These people were actually going after the parents of these dead kids.”
He worked on the script for a few years, and the election of Donald Trump as president caused him to refocus it. Cait Robinson, who lives in Maine, directed a workshop version of the play in the New Voices new play reading series at New Repertory Theater in Watertown, Massachusetts. The fully staged version opens Friday in Portland, again with Robinson at the helm.
The play revolves around Tori, played by Whittlesey, who comes to terms with her brother Hank’s death in a shooting. Hank likes guns, as well as conservative talk radio and forums that peddle conspiracies.
After Hank is killed, his ex-girlfriend, June, begins asking questions that lead Tori to doubt her own understanding of her brother. Was his death a matter of chance or part of something bigger – and which is worse?
Those questions become more critical in a post-Trump world, McGough said. “It was very much fringe subculture there for awhile, but once Trump was elected, it was about a cultural movement and cultural cache that was central in America and had real-world repercussions,” he said.
The play is about Tori’s descent into this pattern of thought and behavior, and explores what leads to this kind of thought and behavior, McGough said. He has a theory.
“For most people, it’s an element of control. It’s someone not being willing to accept a reality where sometimes someone walks into a school and starts shooting. It’s almost more comforting to build a narrative that someone’s in control, someone structured this, someone pulled the string,” he said.
McGough plans to come up for the premiere, and praised Robinson and DRC for taking it on.
“My goals are to start a conversation about why someone falls into this pattern of behavior, and also what can happen as a result of that. It’s easy to write off people who tout conspiracy theories as sideshows and try to keep them separate from the rest of the world. But there are a lot of real-world consequences to everyone who thinks these mass shootings didn’t actually happen.”
WHERE: Studio Theater, Portland Stage, 25A Forest Ave.
WHEN: Opens Friday, on stage through June 10, with performances at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Sunday; 7:30 p.m. Wednesday; 7:30 p.m. June 8; 2 and 7:30 p.m. June 9; and 7:30 p.m. June 10.
HOW MUCH: $10 to $20
INFO: 838-3006, dramaticrep.org