Since its inception in 2017, The Roustabouts Theatre Co. almost instantaneously became an acclaimed and award-winning company, producing new dramas and comedies. After taking an unofficial break from producing main stage shows in San Diego in 2019, the organization is back with a new dark comedy at the Moxie Theatre in Rolando, “gUnTOPIA.”
Presented in the vein of an old-fashioned sitcom such as “Father Knows Best” and “Leave It to Beaver,” founding member Will Cooper’s (Phil Johnson and Ruff Yeager are the other founding members) script follows the life of a loving patriarch, Harry Nelson (Johnson). He and his wife, Mary (Lisel Gorell-Getz), son, Bobby (Levi Laddon), and daughter, June (Ava Harris), are all gun enthusiasts.
The story deals both comically, and eventually, dramatically, with the consequences of gun violence.
During an earlier reading put on by The Roustabouts, Johnson was blown away by Cooper’s writing, and believes theatergoers are going to be impacted by the playwright’s prose.
“I want people to get as much out of this play as they can, because it will affect such a response,” he said. “I think the people that listen to it will be moved.”
Cooper did not want the plot to focus on gun violence, exclusively. “I wouldn’t say this is a play solely about gun violence,” he said. “I see it as a play about the social impact of gun violence.”
In particular, Cooper is disturbed by how “massacres” and school shootings have risen in the last few years, and how Americans are getting used to hearing about these tragic events on a regular basis.
While other notable shows from Cooper that were produced in San Diego, including Moxie’s production of “Jade Heart” and The Roustabouts staging of “Margin of Error,” are dramas with moments of humor, his latest is more comedic than those tales.
“The first scene that I wrote featured a dark comedy tone, and I kept that mostly all the way through, except towards the end,” he said.
Johnson finds the final part of the narrative to be haunting, and a powerful contrast to the rest of the evening. “Setting it in a 1950s-1960s-style television world is kind of a formal covering on this thing that cracks open by the end of the play,” he said. “It’s a way in for the audience, because they’re laughing and they don’t quite understand why. They don’t wake up to what’s going on until the façade cracks.”
Given the premise, audiences might expect Harry to be portrayed as a potentially unlikable and bigoted protagonist. However, Johnson says Harry is actually a character worthy of sympathy, despite the father’s flaws.
“Harry is the most empathetic guy I’ve ever played,” he said.
Part of the reason Johnson cares so much about Harry, is because the role is making him reflect on his relationship with his own 10-year-old child.
“Something I think about all the time is, what would I do to protect my son?” he said.
Despite caring about Harry, Johnson acknowledges that the character makes poor decisions in the first part of the show. Yet, Johnson respects how much Harry cares about his family, and attempts to change as the plot develops.
Many of the points that Cooper wants audiences to take away from his text are not easy to decipher.
“The play has a mystery at its core, and every audience member will have to figure out what that means to him or her,” he said.
A notable aspect that ties into the open-interpretation messages in the play, are several talkbacks with speakers ranging from Cooper and the director Rosina Reynolds, attorney Thomas Haine, and a discussion with both Assembly member Todd Gloria and Jess Durfee, chair of the Western Region Caucus of the DNC. Topics covered in these talkbacks range from Second Amendment issues to student activism around gun violence issues.
Although gun violence is a sensitive topic, Cooper, Reynolds and Johnson want to leave audiences thinking deeply about this issue. Roustabouts' latest hopes to inspire people to take part in smart and nuanced discussions revolving around a serious subject that is now more relevant than ever.
“gUnTOPIA” runs Wednesdays through Sundays, March 8-29 at the Moxie Theatre, 6663 El Cajon Blvd, Suite N. For tickets and more information on “gUnTOPIA,” visit theroustabouts.org or call 619-728-7820.
—David Dixon is a freelance film and theater writer based in San Diego.