An explosive look at the emotional upheaval within a loving family as parents grapple with the aftermath of a gunshot fired by their 10-year-old son that killed his younger brother. Six years later, a caseworker reopens old wounds to see if the teenager is ready to be taken off probation.
It’s Saturday morning in Brighton, Colorado. The Stewart house is a wreck. Old newspapers are stacked, toys are everywhere and piles of laundry occupy most of the furniture. Ruthie dances to loud pop music in a homemade mermaid costume while Charles reads the paper. Helen enters with laundry and dumps it out. She asks Charles when Kaylee came home last night and they quickly realize their teenage daughter is not in the house. Helen sends Ruthie out to collect eggs from the chicken coop and then fumes that Kaylee lied about where she was going the night before.
As Charles tries to calm his wife about Kaylee, she reminds him that the social worker is coming to their house tomorrow. Ruthie runs in screaming after seeing a snake. Helen grabs her shotgun from the basement and takes Ruthie outside. As Charles flips through the paper inside, BANG, the gun blasts. He doesn’t flinch. Helen returns the shotgun to the basement and sends Ruthie upstairs. As Helen laments about the never-ending piles of laundry in their house, there’s a knock at the door. She panics when she sees Jennifer Schwartz eagerly standing outside, briefcase in hand. The social worker is here today.
Helen welcomes Jennifer into their home, apologizing for the mess. She offers her coffee and chips and salsa as Ruthie comes back in. Helen explains that Jennifer is here to talk about Adam and asks if Ruthie can be the first one interviewed.
Ruthie excitedly tells Jennifer about Helen shooting the snake which prompts Jennifer to ask about the guns in the house. Jennifer asks Ruthie about her brother, Joey. Ruthie can’t quite remember how old she was when Joey died, but Helen pops back in to say that Ruthie was eleven months old.
Charles is up next. He tells Jennifer about his job at a warehouse where he works almost 65 hours a week in order to save for the kids’ college. He tells her that Adam is a pretty normal kid. “Quiet, and then when you know him, not.” He talks about how they used to hunt together but Adam won’t anymore. He won’t touch a gun.
Charles excuses himself to grab a beer from the basement, leaving Jennifer alone to look around at family photos. Jennifer asks Charles about the guns in the house and if he has ever considered removing them. He says no and assures her that Adam doesn’t go near them. Then, Charles finally explains what happened the day Joey died. He got home to find cop cars swarming their house and police officers escorting Adam out. He walked inside and a shocked Helen told him what had happened — Adam shot Joey and Joey’s dead. Charles expresses how hard it’s been for Adam and that the family doesn’t spend much time together anymore. They get interrupted by the phone — it’s Kaylee, she needs a ride. Charles leaves to get her.
Helen, now fairly intoxicated, shows Jennifer photo albums and reminisces about how they used to do things as a family. As Helen gets annoyed with what she deems to be judgmental questions from Jennifer, she begins to unravel. She feels like she killed her son. That she should have been the one in jail. She adamantly defends her right to have guns in the house and insists that what happened was an accident, but it’s clear her guilt has destroyed her.
Charles returns with Kaylee who immediately gets in an argument with Helen. Charles mitigates the situation, conscious that Jennifer is watching. He ushers Helen upstairs leaving Kaylee to answer Jennifer’s questions. Kaylee tells her that she’s going to Northwestern in the fall and can’t wait to get out of this shitty place. She talks about how kind Adam is and how all the siblings pretty much get along now since they know what it’s like to lose one. Kaylee expresses that she feels bad for Ruthie who never got parents or a normal family.
Helen sits back down with Jennifer, now openly drinking, and finally details her version of what happened the day that Joey died. She had taken her 9mm out of the broom closet to go after a rabbit in her garden. She took one shot, missed the rabbit and came back inside. Ruthie was crying so instead of returning the gun to the broom closet, she took out the clip and put the gun in a drawer. While she was in Ruthie’s room, she heard the gun go off.
Jennifer asks Helen if she can call Adam down to talk. Helen starts frantically calling for Joey to come down instead. Kaylee and Charles attempt to get Helen out of the house but she refuses to leave until Joey comes downstairs. The chaotic scene is broken when Adam finally appears. He calms his mom and insists that if she goes to Ruthie’s recital, Joey will be there.
Charles and Kaylee get Helen out the door and Jennifer collapses onto her chair, exhausted. She gathers her things to leave but Adam reenters. He calmly explains to her that she didn’t do anything wrong, this is just a normal day in the Stewart household.
He tells Jennifer that he wishes his mom would stop being so protective and just go back to being a mom. He tells her that his mom calls out for Joey to remind him of what he’s done. Adam recounts the day Joey died and we finally get the whole story. They were playing video games when they heard Helen go out the back door. They snuck into the kitchen, quickly ate a bunch of fruit roll ups and then hid behind the basement door as Helen came back inside.
They watched Helen take the clip out of the gun, put it in the drawer and leave. Adam and Joey emerged from the basement, laughing hysterically for getting away with such a big crime. He tells Jennifer that he remembered the gun was in the drawer so he took it out and pretended to shoot it — at the door, at the wall, and then at Joey. The last time, he actually pulled the trigger and it went off. He hit Joey right in the head. He didn’t know that when you take the clip off, there’s still one bullet left.
Adam tells Jennifer that he doesn’t want to be released from parole. He’s afraid to be alone. Afraid of what he’s capable of. He slowly backs up toward the basement door as he asks her to go, but she insists on staying. He tells her he wants to die. He asks her to tell them that he’s sorry.
He reaches for the basement door and locks it behind him. Jennifer bangs on the door, calling his name. She grabs her phone and screams for help but before she can do anything — BANG. The shot gun blasts.
With Aristotelian compression and almost clinical detachment, this quiet, somber story is powerful.
– LA Weekly
Helen Stewart – 40s, blue-collar, alcoholic grieving mother with a big heart but a deep, unpredictable rage
Charles Stewart – 40s, blue-collar, complacent, even-tempered
Ruthie Stewart – 7, percosious, imaginative, full-of-life, wild
Kaylee Stewart – 17, rebellious, smart, perseptive, the beacon of hope in the story
Adam Stewart – 16, physically small/slight, gentle, soft-spoken, polite, hopeless
Jennifer Schwartz – 30s, any race/ethnicity, white-collar, square and sheltered, proficient but inexperienced at her job
Setting: Brighton, Colorado. About 20 miles north of Denver. A typical middle class suburb.
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“It's no small compliment to compare this powerful work to Rabbit Hole, David Lindsay-Abaire's indelible drama about the faces and ramifications of grief following a family tragedy.” –Les Spindle, Edge on the Net
“Ryan sidesteps all the traps of her given situation… all she’s after is a slice of life… and she achieves it through emotion and behavior that are, from beginning to end, precisely observed and rendered… seamlessly paced and cast… You won’t soon forget it.” –Arts in LA
“A powerhouse play, superbly acted and directed, with writing that will resonate long after the final curtain.” –www.reviewplays.com
“Ryan displays her creative strength in… the looming portrait of a tortured family that contains so much subtext and reveals so efficiently its many stresses.” –Stage Raw
“Hitchcockian… vivid… timely!”–Examiner.com
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The production materials for One in the Chamber include:
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