by Tracey Paleo, Gia On The Move

Produced by theater veteran Bree Pavey (Loft Ensemble, Managing Director), Threat, a poignant thriller written by Louis Felder currently at the Whitefire Theatre is a timely look at the psychology behind gun violence and what can (or can’t) be done to stop it.

The subject of mental illness has never been a popular cultural or government discussion and in fact, has been deeply buried beyond the reach of most American politics for decades…until now.

Mason Conrad as David in ‘Threat’ at the Whitefire Theatre, Sherman Oaks, CA

With the recent Stoneman Douglas High School mass shooting in Parkland, FL marking the 34th incident in 2018, less than 2 months into the year, and the iconography that has sprung up from the teens at the forefront of the gun protest, Threat is probably the most self-evident topic in the U.S.A. at this moment.  And in the case of this production, as chilling as it is insightful in making a connection between gun violence and the dramatically widespread narcissism that has reared its head inside the zeitgeist.

Threat is a story about a psychotherapist who tries to control a bipolar, brilliant and dangerous maniac in order to save innocent lives and in order to do so, makes an extreme choice between honoring her oath and protecting others.

From the beginning Margaret (Pagan Urich), a psychology student is being dismissed by her professor Dr. Westbrook (John Posey), who convinces her that the subject matter of her thesis on narcissism and violence, will not get her past the rejection stamp by the stone-aged academics in charge, who are far too concerned with ‘the way things are done’ as opposed to critical and groundbreaking thought.  Never mind the length and the meticulous but unscientific references to popular culture, which will overly tax them to read. She is advised by him to co-write a book (for an acknowledgment at the back) on Menopause.  It’s a horrible choice Margaret loathes but makes in order to get her degree.

John Posey as Dr Westbrook and Pagan Grace as Margaret in ‘Threat’ at the Whitefire Theatre, Sherman Oaks, CA

Three years later Margaret is practicing on the campus of another university where her most difficult-to-reach patient David (Mason Conrad), is also one of the most brilliant scientific minds of his age, and coincidently obsessed with getting a Pulitzer for his original theory on Dark Matter.  David is the epitome of Margaret’s once hopeful manuscript now sitting in a locked drawer in her desk, as a lost ideal.

When David comes to her on this evening with the declaration that his theory has been proved and he wants public vindication, their doctor/patient relationship morphs from tenuous to threatening to dangerous and eventually uncontrollable.  Margaret finds herself in the violent swing of David’s caprice and must become an accomplice to the homicide he intends to act out on his professors and students at the school.

Mason Conrad takes on his role as David with skill and believable passion.  More than frightening, the writing for this character is multi-leveled with intrigue as we listen to the mind of a young man who is highly logical and illogical at the same time, and who is very convincing in pointing out Margaret’s experience with her own work as justification for the revenge they are about to exact. Conrad exploits the moments without hyperbole, instead giving a conceivable account.

Pagan Urich as Margaret is profound and disturbing as she dives into her own entombed feelings in order to navigate David’s violence.  At times, we’re not sure if it’s true or not and neither does David. And yet, Urich captures the ordinary of a normal person.  There is no melodrama presented here with her character.  It’s refreshing and uncomfortable sitting in the same room.

John Posey tends to play the archetype of Dr. Westbrook as it is mostly written in this story.  A well-meaning academic, sensitive to an intense and astute student, who tries to manage expectation and outcome.  But in the end, and although he does help Margaret, there’s the overwhelming urge to want to slap the man across the face for not risking more early on, on Margaret’s behalf.

But then again, Margaret’s own vindication, though coming at a high cost, is worth the setup for her future.

As far as the gun violence, however, there are no straight answers and definitely ones that no one is going to want to entertain.  Because, some people just can’t be saved.  At least that’s the message.  And it’s an ugly one.

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Photos by Magdalena Calderon (above): Mason Conrad as David and Pagan Grace as Margaret

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