It’s really hard to parody America’s obsession with guns. That’s in part because the insanity of the obsession parodies itself: Soldier of Fortune editor and tough guy Robert K. Brown reportedly exclaiming, “You stupid son of a bitch. You shot me,” after a supposed gun-expert friend accidentally shot him in the leg. A Georgia town responding to a mass shooting elsewhere by making gun ownership mandatory. All of the absurd prancing and posturing of armed white separatists. And the ridiculous reasoning of the National Rifle Association, whose phrase "Guns don’t shoot people, people do" gets a satirical workout in Kyle John Schmidt’s The Secretary . But, of course, none of this is actually funny, because of the hideous mayhem and disruption that results when a nation is awash in arms — not only the murders, suicides and accidental shootings, but also the insidious effects on society as a whole, with five-year-olds being taught how to respond if a shooter enters their kindergarten class and so many of us feeling a small spinal chill when a co-worker seems irrationally angry.
Yet somehow Schmidt managed to write a parody that’s funny without being preachy, blind, obvious or insensitive, and it’s being given a fine regional premiere by Curious Theatre Company. Ruby, the owner of a gun-manufacturing factory, is searching for a secretary, but the current applicant doesn’t seem suitable. She is April, a self-righteous gun-reform advocate who is also half-sister to office manager Janelle, fleeing an abusive husband and desperate for work. Eventually, however, the job goes to Lorrie, who clearly has a weird screw loose. As the action begins, there’s just been a shooting at the local school, where sweetly empathetic secretary Shirley shot an armed student. Which not only makes her a hero, but means that Ruby will see a huge upsurge in sales. Cheerfully, she comes out with a new weapon that she dubs The Secretary. But Brandy, mother of the slain student, doesn’t see things in quite the same cheerful light.
Though almost everyone has some characteristic that strikes us as familiar, even stereotypical, Schmidt gives all these people life and contour. Candy-dispensing Shirley may be the nurturer students think she is, but doesn’t she harbor just the tiniest homicidal streak as well? And why doesn’t her account of the shooting line up as precisely as Ruby might like with the NRA trope that the only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun? Perhaps April, stalked by her husband, should think seriously about doing the one thing she steadfastly refuses to do: arm herself. And although April is politically correct in most ways, staging a bloody die-in soon after the death of the gun-toting student seems pretty insensitive. It certainly sets off Brandy.
Finally, it’s surely significant that gun profiteer Ruby is the sanest, strongest and most likable person in the play, almost always the voice of calm and reason. Ruby is kind to her neighbors, anxious to employ laid-off townsfolk and profoundly protective of her employees. She is also portrayed here by the magnificent Kathleen M. Brady, once a Denver Center star and far too seldom seen on stage these days. In her hands, the character is as rich and full as can be imagined, and serves as the strong backbone of the evening.
The power of director Christy Montour-Larson’s production doesn’t stop there. In addition to Brady, we get Leslie O’Carroll as Shirley — irresistibly comic while she goes through her series of physical exercises and genuinely touching as she comes unraveled, along with Emma Messenger in a riveting performance as slow-witted, thick-tongued and seething-with-rage Lorrie — the absolute image of someone whose arms should never cradle a gun. Adeline Mann is a sympathetic April, Karen Slack a vibrating wire-taut Brandy, and Devon James very funny as calendar-obsessed Janelle.
People have said that The Secretary provides both sides of the gun issue, but I don’t see it exactly like that. Schmidt obviously understands that an issue as vexed, complex and crucial as this has many more than two sides. While illustrating the danger posed by the ubiquity of guns, the script doesn’t demonize gun owners or manufacturer Ruby. It also implies that in a gun-obsessed world, there may be reason for some people —particularly women, and this is an all-woman play — to carry a weapon. Like many semi-farcical works, this one evolves into a kind of disintegration as indiscriminate shooting begins and everyone insists that the guns are going off by themselves.
You can take that in more than one way. Perhaps the guns are defective and it’s really happening. Perhaps it’s an idiotic excuse that all the shooters have decided to adopt. Maybe the notion describes the way people tend to feel in real life when they face the fact that they’ve killed someone, and try to remember exactly what happened through the haze of fear, rage and confusion surrounding the act. Or maybe it's just that Schmidt liked the idea of the guns taking on a life of their own as metaphor. Any way you cut it, The Secretary makes a strong statement about our crazed gun culture and the desperate need for a thoughtful solution.
The Secretary, presented by Curious Theatre Company through February 22, 1080 Acoma Street, 303-623-0524, curioustheatre.org.