Review: Broken Nose Theatre Asks If the Cure Can Be Worse Than the Illness in This is Only a Test

I have not heard the air raid sirens in years. In the ’50s through the ’80s an air raid siren would blare every Tuesday morning at 10:30. It was heard citywide to run a drill in case of a nuclear attack. Hiding under a desk was a bit before my time and we Catholic school kids made the sign of the cross whenever we heard any kind of siren. It seems that Americans cannot agree on common-sense laws for the purchase of weapons or the use of deadly force, which is more likely to happen than a nuclear bomb dropping on us. This is Only a Test by Broken Nose Theatre is a disturbing look at what the American school system does in lieu of being able to demand stricter laws. Playwright Eric Reyes Loo rips the bandage off and reveals a wound that continues to fester. This play shows how fear, ambition, and sometimes greed play a role in what happens in providing a purported safe environment for learning.

This is Only a Test takes place in a diverse class of students who are just being kids. There is the handsome jock—Wynn, played with extraordinary sensitivity and nuance by Austyn Williamson. There is the gay kid Kramer, who is played by Graham Helfrick, in a performance that is raw and explosive. Kramer projects confidence that gay characters have not had in the past. He owns who and what he is without shame and mostly with a flourish that is welcome comic relief.

Sophia Vitello and Zhanna Albertini. Photo by Evan Hanover.

Zhanna Albertini gives an award-worthy performance as Selma, the overachieving Asian girl who must get into an Ivy League school. Her mother tries to be supportive and her stepfather barely acknowledges her achievements or her fears. Sophia Vitello wins hearts as Lenore, an aspiring actress who is so introverted that no one believes that she would ever get any parts.

The cast is rounded out by the wonderful RjW Mays as Woman, and Christopher M. Walsh as Man. They play the principal and the safety consultant who promises that he can train the kids how to survive a school shooting. They also play every set of parents for the four kids in some remarkable character changing. Walsh as the consultant is eerily similar to the narrator of workplace shooting videos. A chill came over me when he uttered the words, “Run, HIde. Fight,” which is what adults are supposed to do if a shooter is on the premises. I have to watch them every year as part of safety training, and they send me into an anxious tailspin and it has been a minute since I was in high school. I don’t know if I would remember where the fire extinguishers are if I have to fight a gunman and it is even more chilling to think that this is what children have to go through as well.

RjW Mays and Christopher M. Walsh. Photo by Evan Hanover.

The writing is punchy and tense yet well-paced. The dialogue is spot-on for high school kids who are pushed into having the responsibility for their lives and the lives of others on their shoulders, instead of worrying about getting into drama club or being an ‘influencer’. Toma Tavares Langston has beautifully directed a black-box theater production where no space can be wasted and the action can be uncomfortably close. Kudos to the fight director Carly Cason for making the action work seamlessly with the space and other characters in the scenes. The violence is done well with all characters participating with reactions to make a scene chaotic—just like a school shooting. This is Only a Test raises questions of what to do to keep children safe. Is the solution more poisonous than the problem? Do kids not get a childhood any more? How many people can really say that they had an idyllic childhood in a comfortable nuclear family without witnessing violence, death, and insecurity?

The answers to those questions are on the news and even more vividly on the internet—in real-time. This is Only a Test will weigh on your mind, and hopefully provoke conversations about solutions that are not militaristic or fear-based. In case you didn’t know, some schools require clear backpacks as is presented on this stage and that has become as commonplace as air raid sirens back in the day. My generation became inured to the warning sirens and it seems that the future adults have become inured to the violence. This is Only a Test presents a warning as well: sometimes the solutions don’t make any difference at all.

This is Only a Test runs 2 hours with a 10-minute intermission. The show plays through March 12 at the Den Theatre, 1331 N. Milwaukee Ave. Broken Nose offers a “Pay-What-You-Can” ticket and I sincerely hope that everyone will donate as generously as possible. More information can be found at www.brokennosetheatre.com and www.thedentheatre.com. Covid protocols are in place for performances. Bring your vaccination card and identification and please wear a mask to cover your nose and mouth. Keep live theater living!

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Kathy D. Hey

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