Unsettling, uneven ‘Toxic’ wrestles with school shootings

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Late in the City Lights Theater Company world premiere production of “Toxic,” former student Jessie takes her fellow high school alums through a harrowing moment when she witnessed a popular teacher gunned down just feet from where she now stood. The recollection is a crushing reminder of how innocent lives can shatter in a split-second.

It’s a brilliant morsel delivered with loads of vicious, raw details that are all too commonplace in today’s America, in which young students are forced to live with the trauma of code red drills due to the staggering failure by those in power to curtail the epidemic of gun violence at our schools and elsewhere.

But despite instances where the cast of 11 actors share their agency, “Toxic” feels unfocused, diving and darting through lots of hot-button topics but never really remaining in one place long enough to parse timely truths about our current, repugnant reality.

Playwright Kit Wilder’s intention of crafting an explosive narrative often buckles under the weight of its own ambition. The dialogue leans too far into proselytizing, the sheer number of actors in the cast diluting the 80-minute play’s impact.

It is five years after a horrific school shooting, where multiple people, mostly students, met their end at the hands of a single gunman. Mark (played by Jonathan Covey) organizes a heartbreaking reunion of his fellow survivors in the room where it happened. As the group of people now in their early 20s descends upon the scene of the crime, each takes turns explaining their personal hell of the past five years and what they have lost. The wonderful memories of a popular teacher are erased as the red shards of blood on his back replace the joyous memories of his red pen marks on their English papers.

Within Jeffrey Bracco’s clunky staging, however, everyone seems to be awkwardly hovering in a space where, metaphorically, no one fits.

One of the biggest issues of the play is asked by Jake (Arturo Montes), when he defiantly states, “Are we supposed to know what we’re all doing here?”

Ay, there’s the rub. That question is never answered, but outside of Jake, it’s also never really asked. What brought each of these people, whose trauma is so hauntingly fresh and specific, to the room that represents the nadir of their suffering? Why did they agree to show up? If anything, the difficult journey toward healing should avoid this very room.

One character in particular seems to have the most problematic arc in the room. That would be Annika (Christina Bolognini), a graduate student from Germany studying “American culture.” Annika is a bit timid, very careful to not impose on such a personal and intimate gathering. “I just want to observe,” she says.

Which would be a nice sentiment if it were true.

It turns out Annika is writing her thesis on gun violence, and decides to win the group over by saying things like: “Mark has told me what you’ve all gone through. This is an invaluable opportunity for me.”

Gee, glad we can help.

A character can be crafted to take on any type of identity or serve any thematic purpose. But a character such as Annika adds nothing to the story with her astounding, insulting ignorance. Bolognini does a solid job with the character, who is saddled with dialogue that harms every time Annika opens her mouth. Sharing staggeringly tone deaf statistics about the scourge that is American gun violence to a bunch of survivors? Really?

The moments that work best are those where the writing allows characters to portray purposeful truth. As Jessie, Alexandra Velazquez is pensive and patient, waiting for the right moment to unlock a devastating detail of that dark day. Bracco’s staging in another moment when a major secret is revealed shines brightly, despite one aspect of that secret being spoiled early. And the ubiquitous imagery of America’s failure to halt gun violence unspools in a video montage that juxtaposes with an ironic word — the effect is chilling.

At the beginning of the play, Mark enters and looks around the former classroom, which is now storage. He then asks a preposterous question, which neatly informs the script’s issues: “After what happened here, I think it’s probably overdue for a little healing, right?”

No, Mark, the room is way overdue for a bulldozing.

David John Chávez is chair of the American Theatre Critics Association and a two-time juror for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama (‘22-‘23); @davidjchavez.


‘TOXIC’

By Kit Wilder, presented by City Lights Theater Company

Through: Oct. 15

Where: City Lights Theater, 529 S. Second St., San Jose

Running time: 80 minutes, no intermission

Tickets: $38-$60; cltc.org

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