What artistic director David J. Miller has achieved at Zeitgeist Stage Company over the past 18 seasons deserves a round of applause.
By dint of sheer will, Miller has kept the fringe company he founded afloat despite shoestring budgets. He has presented dramas whose in-the-moment topicality and driving sense of urgency fulfilled the promise of Zeitgeist’s name as often as not. He has shouldered directorial duties for all but one of the company’s 52 productions, while also frequently designing the sets. He has astutely cast exceptional performers like Maureen Adduci, Victor Shopov, and Becca A. Lewis in roles that showcased the full range of their talents.
The net result of Miller’s labors has been that, in terms of impact (if not always in terms of audience), Zeitgeist punched way above its weight.
I wish I could say that Jacques Lamarre’s “Trigger Warning’’ — the first world premiere Zeitgeist has ever presented and the final production before the company closes its doors for good — represents a worthy coda to Miller’s remarkable run. But the production is undone by a predictable script and unpersuasive performances.
It’s a shame, because the Miller-directed “Trigger Warning’’ is built on a promising idea: to explore the impact of a school shooting on the parents and sibling of the shooter as they wrestle with questions of whether they could have taken steps to prevent it.
Yet Lamarre, a Connecticut playwright who was commissioned to write the play by Zeitgeist, too often seems to be checking off dramaturgical boxes rather than constructing a truly distinctive, freshly imagined portrait of a family suddenly thrust into a nightmare. That family consists of mother Jackie (Liz Adams), father Murph (Steve Auger), and daughter Meghan (Lilly Brenneman), as well as Jackie’s sister, Amy (Kelley Estes). They try to cope with the fallout after son Travis (unseen) perpetrates the worst high school massacre in US history. Travis had been a rage-filled presence, frightening his mother and physically abusing his sister — an abuse that continued right up to the end, with Travis wounding Meghan during his shooting rampage. Recriminations and accusations fly within their home and outside it; feelings of guilt vie with attempts at denial.
For a drama like this to resonate as it should, we need to believe in the relationships among the family members and truly feel the devastation of a world falling apart. As portrayed by this cast, though, they seem barely to have met one another, much less to be related. (And no, that remoteness does not register as a reflection of the emotional distance the characters are feeling because of shock.)
Adams, usually a fine actress, largely remains locked on a single note of vein-popping agitation as Jackie. Auger, so good as a Trump-like billionaire-turned-politician in Zeitgeist’s “Vicuna,’’ seems to have only a tentative grasp on who Murph is, seldom delving beyond the father’s surface bluster until the climactic scene, which does have an unsettling power. Holly Newman is far too passive as the attorney who tries to guide the family through the legal and media maelstrom, although Naeemah A. White-Peppers, who plays multiple roles, projects pained empathy as a minister and crisp authority as an FBI agent.
A remark blurted out to the FBI agent by Adams’s Jackie while the shootings are still ongoing delivers a jolt and stands as one of relatively few surprising moments in the play. For most of “Trigger Warning,’’ the characters say pretty much what you expect them to say. Jackie to her sister in the aftermath: “I can’t stop feeling that it is my fault. . . . I keep wondering what we could have done differently. . . . I should’ve seen it coming.’’ You can too often see the next line coming in “Trigger Warning.’’
For all the shouting and emoting, the play is strangely static. While I respect the playwright’s attempt to shed a wider light on the gun culture that gives rise to mass shootings, it feels more than a bit on the nose to have Murph be a gun safety instructor for the NRA who keeps a cache of firearms in the house.
Further underscoring the historical grip of gun culture on America is the set by Michael Flowers, which features a large painting in the family’s home of men on horseback firing rifles. Flowers also is responsible for the wrenching projections of news footage that drive home how pervasive mass shootings have become in the United States (as did this week’s news relating to the 20th anniversary of Columbine).
While “Trigger Warning’’ still feels like a missed opportunity, Lamarre and Miller deserve credit for tackling such urgent and timely subject matter. Nothing about this production smacks of bad faith — and nothing about it diminishes the valiant work that Miller has done at Zeitgeist over the past two decades.
Play by Jacques Lamarre. Directed by David J. Miller. Presented by Zeitgeist Stage Company. At Plaza Black Box Theatre, Boston Center for the Arts, through May 4. Tickets: $20-$30, 617-933-8600, www.bostontheatrescene.comDon Aucoin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter@GlobeAucoin