The Library, a new play at New York's Public Theater, tackles an uncomfortable contemporary topic head on: It looks at the aftermath of a school shooting and peers into the shattered lives of the survivors, and the stories they tell. The play is written by Scott Z. Burns and directed by Steven Soderbergh, who've collaborated on three films; most recently, the thriller, Side Effects.
And even before the play begins, Soderbergh and Burns make the audience uneasy. When you enter the theater, a young woman in a hospital gown lies center stage on what could be a table or a bed or a slab in the morgue, Burns says. "People start having to invent a story, you know, which is: Is she alive? Is she not alive? And so they're already, before we've said anything, experiencing what the play is about, which is, you know, you start assembling facts and truths into stories that support your belief set and allow you to keep going."
Once the play starts, the audience discovers that the young woman onstage is a high school sophomore named Caitlin Gabriel, and although she's survived a violent massacre, one of the other survivors has gone on TV and accused her of telling the gunman where several victims were hiding.
Film actress Chlöe Grace Moretz, 17, is making her stage debut as Caitlin. "Caitlin ... wakes up out of her induced coma, basically, and she finds out right then and there that not only is her best friend that she was laying beside dead, but that she's now being accused of being an accomplice to the murder of six children and one faculty member," Moretz says.
Soderbergh says the rest of the play is not just about untangling the truth, but how each of these characters, kids and parents, try to control the narrative, often publicly, on television and in newspapers.
"We were fascinated by not only the idea of competing stories that have to do battle, but also another story or another myth that often comes out of events like these is that somehow everyone who goes through a tragedy is somehow ennobled by it, if they survive," he says. "And we were interested in sort of proposing a more realistic version of that story, which is: some people that go through tragedies like this are just damaged."
It was the story of one survivor of the Columbine shooting, Val Schnurr, which convinced writer Burns to create the play. Shortly after the massacre in 1999, misinformation about some of the victims and survivors began to proliferate. "So when stories get out –- you know, especially now when we have a lot of unfiltered media that finds its way into our eyes and ears very quickly after these things – it's hard to get it back," he says.
Moretz puts it even more simply. "It's like the whisper game you play at camp," she says, "where one person whispers at the other end of the table and then they all whisper the same thing and then at the end of it, you find out it's a completely different story."
Playwright and director have chosen not to focus on the gunman. If there's an antagonist in the story, it's the mother of one of the victims, who deals with her loss by writing a book and consulting on a film, both of which sanctify her daughter and accuse Caitlin of leading the gunman to other victims. She's played by Lili Taylor, who says while it's important to empathize with her characters, she doesn't need to like them.
"I don't have to agree with the way that they go about their life," Taylor says. "Sure, there's certain things I feel that are kind of preventing her from getting a full picture, but I also think that people have these belief systems for a reason, and you know, I hear if you take that system away, they'll fall apart."
Eventually she confronts Caitlin. And throughout the play, as new information about the characters and events is revealed, director Soderbergh says audience members begin to question their own beliefs.
"The story sort of comes at you in waves," he says. "You know what I mean? Like we experience the news cycle –- sort of every scene there's another shoe that drops and you go, 'Oh boy. Now I have to rethink what I've been watching.' "
Audiences will have a limited opportunity to make up their own minds: The Library is at New York's Public Theater through April 27.