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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
Mark On Society

Something happened. Something he had no control over. Something snapped in my boy.— C. A

It’s surreal to go from the Virginia Tech massacre on your living room TV to the Theatre East at the Lex production of Mark on Society, a "live docu-drama" about the shooting deaths at the University of Texas in August 1966 by a sniper named Charles Joseph Whitman, an ace marksman who picked off 16 people and wounded others from the campus bell tower. Leif E. Gantvoort wrote his carefully researched dramatization two years ago and the production was scheduled to open long before this week’s tragedy. The company includes a response to that in the program, expressing regret and their commitment to deal with what the survivors experienced in this play.

Extremely well-structured and tautly dramatic under the direction of Peter Haskell, it succeeds in being neither exploitational or psychologically explanatory. The capable cast is headed by Robert Factor, as C.A., Whitman[s father. Gantvoort, who is also an award-winning set and lighting designer, has created a simple but effective set and subtle lighting design that don’t distract from the stark story on the Lex’s tiny stage.

The story is told in monologues from C.A.; Claire, a pregnant girl who was shot; Robert, an AP reporter on campus; Larry, a student; a doctor; Joe, a broadcaster Jerry, a cop; Ira, a professor teaching a class on “the event” 10 years later, and others. We are Ira’s students, as each character stands up and talks of the events of that day.

Projections against the back wall depict the campus, head shots of the victims often followed by head shots of their corpses (no blood or gaping wounds). On stage right is the tower where the Sniper takes aim. His only lines, delivered as he crosses the stage lugging a box which we later learn contains guns, are "Thank you. Have a nice day." A tolling bell and the college clock punctuate the drama.

Gantvoort’s through line follows the story of the first person wounded, a pregnant girl named Claire whose boyfriend, the father of her baby, falls dead over her in an attempt to protect her. She lies there throughout the massacre, hoping someone will rescue her. Finally another student, Larry, sees his chance to drag her to safety. Later in the hospital she learns her unborn child was shot by the sniper and she will never be able to have other children.

The sniper, a former Eagle Scout and Marine, is an ace marksman, whose aim is admired in awe by those below, even as they shrink from its consequences. Claire is one of two pregnant women he deliberately shot in the stomach, killing both babies, before the police manage to invade the tower and shoot the sniper.

The events of the day are interspersed by CA’s story of the son he was so proud of, the youngest Eagle Scout in the country, a Marine whose commanders praised him and was awarded a college scholarship. He married a girl with a good job and was beloved by the children in the neighborhood. After his marriage, things began to go wrong. His grades fell, he lost his scholarship, he was court martialed for unauthorized possession of a pistol and spent 30 days in the brig, after which he was demoted. A month before the "event", he expressed rage to a psychiatrist and even talked of shooting people from the tower. He hit his wife and told a friend he was afraid of turning into his father. The night before it happened he had drinks with Larry and seemed happy, as though he had come to terms with his life. His actions were carefully planned. An autopsy revealed a brain tumor, although the coroner did not think that caused the shootings. He left letters. He also left the slaughtered bodies of his wife and mother.

CA thinks he did that because he didn’t want them to suffer as a result of his deeds. He didn’t want to "embarrass" them. A cold martinet of a man, he doesn’t blame himself and maintains to the last line of the play that his son was a good boy.

Why some people are able to overcome traumatic parents, marriages, jobs and others are so devastated that they take out their rage on the world before destroying themselves remains a mystery. Early diagnosis and preventive measures are issues our society still has to confront, authorize and create. Mark on Society doesn’t offer any answers but it’s a compelling portrait of one of our world’s most appalling aberrations.

Playwright: Leif E. Gantvoort
Director: Peter Haskell
Cast: Les Feltmate (Sniper), Robert Factor (C.A.), Anora Wolff (Claire), Stuart G. Bennett (Robert), Ryan Mcgivern (Larry), Jeffrey S. Miles (Jerry), Carrie C. Ceryes (Doctor), Alan Naggar (Ira), Stephan Marshall (Joe), Martha Ellen Senseney (Stacey/Nancy/Leeda), Chad Williams (McCoy), Martin Rascon (Martinez), Brian Byrnes (Pearce/Davis).
Production Design: Leif E. Gantvoort
Running Time: 90 minutes, no intermission
Running Dates: April 200-May 26, 2007
Where: Theatre East at the Lex, 6760 Lexington Avenue, Hollywood. Reservations: (323) 960-7740.
Reviewed by Laura Hitchcock on April 20.
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