Five years after a school shooting, Alley, the struggling, smart-mouthed teenage sister of the shooter, wrestles with forgiveness, moving forward, and the lingering questions left in the wake of her brother’s crime. Another decade later, as an adult, finding satisfying answers proves no easier. Will she ever find an opportunity for hope and healing, or will the ghosts of her past forever haunt her?
We open with 25-year-old Allison Mason being interviewed for a 2014 documentary about gun violence. We learn that her old brother Douglas Lee Mason was the school shooter behind the infamous East Maple, Mississippi tragedy a decade earlier. As documentarian Rae pushes Allison to recall that era, a haunted childhood resurfaces.
The rest of the first act takes place in 2004, when young Alley Mason is coming of age in the wake of her brother’s horrible crime; the scenes of Alley’s high school days are interspersed with scenes set in limbo, featuring Alley’s ghostly memories of her aunt Myrna, a strong-willed old Southern matriarch who shaped the entire Mason family.
In 2004, five years after her brothers’ horrific act, Alley is starting high school. Her therapist, Dr. Berlin, tries to prepare her for the journey ahead. Alley is struggling with her emotions, having trouble sleeping (“Shouldn’t we all?” she challenges her therapist), and not letting her mother touch her. One coping mechanism she and her therapist come up with has to do with the bottle tree that sits in the yard of the home where Alley lives with her mother, Rhoda. Both Alley and Rhoda still reel from the traumas in their life— Doug’s crime, and the death of Myrna, who left them her house, which suffocates them but which they can’t afford to leave. Alley wants desperately to move, but as her mother always tells her, it’s just not an option for them.
At the very least, Alley wants to be anonymous at school; she doesn’t want anyone to know who her brother was or what he did. She plans to keep to herself. But one student, Joseph Flores, is determined to befriend her. Joseph is nerdy, charming, extroverted. His friends Monica and Rick follow his lead, and slowly warm to the acerbic Alley. However, when they figure out that she is Douglas Lee Mason’s little sister, the dynamic shifts. Rick and Monica are horrified. Alley goes home and smashes a bottle from her bottle tree. Monica tells Joseph that “he, of all people” should not want to be around anyone from that family, which infuriates Joseph.
Alley won’t talk to her mother about what’s going on, and when news of yet another school shooting breaks, on the five-year-anniversary of the East Maple shooting, and as Alley seems on the verge of a breakdown, Rhoda goes to visit Dr. Berlin and talk to him directly. That’s when she learns that Dr. Berlin had been the school counselor when her son walked into the building and opened fire. In this small town, none of them were spared the trauma of that day.
At the end of the act, Alley has skipped school and no one knows where she is, and in the brief closing scene, another memory of Myrna reveals one of Alley’s secret insights: Myrna’s lessons about family, pride, obligation, and firearms were not aimed only at Alley, and in fact very likely led directly to Doug’s act.
The second act opens with a further-flashback scene: Alley at age seven, helping her beloved great-aunt Myrna prepare for Christmas. Despite the warmth of the holiday music, decorations, and hot chocolate, darker undertones tinge this period. Doug is missing, again; Myrna is trying to hide her anxiety over his behavior; Rhoda is absent, leaving Alley’s care to the older aunt; and adult-Alley’s biggest guilt plays out in this scene as the audience learns that she was the one who helped select, wrap, and gift Douglas Lee Mason with the weapons he would ultimately use to kill four innocent people as well as himself.
Returning in the second scene to 2004, Alley and her mother finally talk about their struggles with the anniversary of Doug’s crime. Her mother asks if Alley was the one who defaced Doug’s headstone; Alley says no. Overcome with emotion, Rhoda tells Alley that they can move. It doesn’t matter that they can’t afford it; staying in Maple is slowly killing them both. They’ll figure out a way to make it work. They’ll move.
Joseph comes over to Alley’s house, wanting to make sure she is okay. She isn’t, not when it comes to him— and she tells him exactly why: Monica emailed her, informing her that Joseph’s step-father had been one of the victims killed by Douglas Lee Mason. Alley doesn’t understand why Joseph could possibly want to befriend her when her brother shattered his family. Joseph tries to explain that he doesn’t hold Alley responsible, and that he has no one to talk to when it comes to this trauma, and he has been hoping Alley might be someone who could finally understand what it means to go through that level of shock, loss, scrutiny, and sorrow. He kisses her, and for a moment they are just two kids connecting; but Alley tells him that this relationship would never work— and anyway, she’s moving.
The final scene takes places ten years later, back on the documentary set in 2014. Rae continues pushing Alley, asking Alley about her own gun ownership despite her strong anti-gun stance. Backed into a corner, Alley confesses that yes, she inherited a slew of guns. And then she buried them. Rae then tells Alley that the next interviewee has arrived, and it’s someone from Alley’s own past. Conflicted, Alley finally says to let him in— and in walks the most important man in her life from that era: Dr. Berlin. They briefly catch up on the past decade, and Dr. Berlin finally tells Alley that he, too, had been traumatized by East Maple: he was in the building when her brother opened fire.
Moved by her encounter with her long-lost therapist, Alley asks Rae for a few more moments on camera. She finally gives a full explanation of the bottle tree: it was a symbol of progress, for her and her mother. On days they felt like they were moving past the tragedy, they added a bottle to the tree; on days of pain and regression, they removed a bottle from the tree. Alley used to think healing meant moving on, filling the bottle tree and never thinking about East Maple again. Now she hates that everyone has forgotten that small-town shooting, since there have been so many more since then. She no longer believes in easy answers; and for her, the only way to begin to heal is to try to balance out her brother’s crime with her own activism. She then slowly names the victims, something she was unable to do in her youth, and pleads with the documentary viewers not to glorify her brother but instead to remember the innocents who died.
Before Alley exits, Dr. Berlin asks her if she still has trouble sleeping. Sad and honest, she answers him simply, not snide anymore but still painfully aware that nothing has been resolved… does she have trouble sleeping? Ruefully, she says the same thing she said to him a decade earlier: “Shouldn’t we all?”
A sincere, non-condescending and compassionate piece of writing…
–Chris Jones, Chicago Tribune
Alley Mason – F. In this play, we see Alley at age 25, at 15, and briefly at 7; all portrayed by same actor.
Dr. Carl Berlin – M, 30s/40s. Alley’s therapist.
Rhoda Mason – F, late 30s. Alley’s mother.
Joseph Flores – M, 15. A student at Alley’s school; Alley’s unlikely friend.
Myrna Mason – F, 70s. Alley’s great-aunt, a tough Southern woman who helped raise Alley and her brother Doug.
Rae – 30s. A documentary filmmaker. (Note: Where smaller casts are preferred, one actress can portray this role and the role of Monica. This role is otherwise gender-neutral.)
Monica – F, 15. A student at Alley’s school.
Rick – M, 16. A student at Alley’s school.
Primary Location 1: The fictional town of Maple, Mississippi – 2004, with some earlier memories
Primary Location 2: Filming “Trigger Warning” documentary, on set in Maple, Mississippi, in 2014
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“A sincere, non-condescending and compassionate piece of writing… Kander has painted a rich portrait of her empathetic central character.” –Chris Jones, Chicago Tribune
“Kander’s play aims high… The Bottle Tree has plenty of things going for it.” —Allison Shoemaker, Time Out Chicago
“Creates a convincing and rich character portrait” —Dan Jakes, Chicago Reader
“Fantastic… a nuanced and humane story about a topic that is usually hard to speak of outside of overly simplistic cliches…” —Wrongsideblog
“A nuanced examination of a current controversy… Recommended.” —Jacob Davis, Around the Town
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