It is with some boldness that Steven Soderbergh makes his return to theatre, and then with a topic of this nature makes it all the more valorous. Soderbergh, an Academy Award-winning director and celebrated for films like "Traffic," "Erin Brockovich," and "Ocean’s Eleven" teamed up with writer Scott Z. Burns (loved for "Side Effects," "Contagion" and "The Bourne Ultimatum") to create this controversial and difficult play -- the aftermath of a high school shooting. But the difficulty isn’t just in the topic or in the text; it all just runs too deep in the hearts of America.
Usually with plays dealing with tragic events such as 9/11 and soon the Boston Marathon bombing, a certain grace period is observed. This time, often 10 years, is what physiologists would call a healing of the wounds, or reparation of the irreparable damage.
But with "The Library," it seems as though this time was ignored. Perhaps rightfully so as the Sandy Hook High School shooting somehow changed something in the very fiber of American, and beyond, society. Everyone who watched the television footage lost a child that day.
Terrorism feels out of the control of the people of this country. Even with all the spying and Snowden claims, it somehow feels like we cannot quite contain what we define to be terrorism. This doesn’t even factor in what the media defines terrorism to be. But this type of shooting -- a much closer to home type -- is somehow something that we as citizens of this world feel we should contain. We should be controlling the psychology of crazy people from New York to Louisville and guns from the Rockies to Fire Island.
The play opens with harsh lighting and has doctors and nurses in the emergency room discussing a recently shot young girl, Caitlin Gabriel (played by Chloë Grace Moretz, from the remake of "Carrie" fame). Never better than this the set gets the opening moments just so right, as to attract all the right attention right now.
The set, as expected with Soderbergh, is abstract glitz and gives off that slight movie set aura but remains perfectly sterile as it morphs from hospital, to crime scene to broken home. Soderbergh and his crew get this so right with a simple few tables and chairs; all in cold stainless steel.
The action happens fast and Caitlin Gabriel, a high school sophomore, is getting blamed for directing the shooter to a closet filled with hiding students. Suddenly she gets no money from the victims’ fund and the whole town shuns her and the punishment seemingly won’t stop there.
The police place the young girl in a compromising position, and the reporters outside her house are reporting just what they please. Judgment, seemingly, is harsher than necessary and words are drowned by supposed actions.
That said, our anti-hero young girl was shot, maimed and presumed dead by Marshall, the deranged pizza-delivering killer that day. He entered the school and made his way to the library and that is where Caitlin received him. But the blame game gets heated; one of the slain girls’ mothers Dawn Sheridan (played discretely by Lili Taylor) gives the story the next bit of kindling.
Sheridan, a Bible-beating Christian who embraces her faith ever so strongly, defends her daughter as Caitlin rightly tells the truth about the horrendous day. Caitlin, with no malice, accuses Sheridan’s daughter of ratting out the other students.
On the sidelines is Caitlin’s mother, an over-hyped and annoyingly pitched Jennifer Westfeldt, who tries to manage the ensuing situation but is caught up in her own hell. This hell, a seemingly philandering husband and a drinking habit that is reaching a little across the rim, cripples the woman. Her strength is not apparent anywhere in the play and unfortunately Westfeldt, not surprisingly so, cannot find a drift for the character. But the value of motherhood and her voice to the media as a bias dribble cannot be ignored.
But the real story here is the media story infused throughout all this chaos. Media and society treat victims as heroes; Sheridan even gets a book deal in the play. The media (case in point the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines a few weeks ago) simply blows a story out of proportion.
And with social media the pressure of delivering the story first is heightened. What sells papers and gets clicks online is what matters -- not the truth. That is what Soderbergh and Burns remind us of. The rest of the play, with some great acting from Moretz, is trivial compared to the need to assess and be critical of the media landscape.
"The Library" runs through April 27 at The Public Theatre, 425 Lafayette St, New York. For information or tickets, call 212-967-7555 or visit publictheater.org.