By the time I got to Charlottesville to cover the Unite the Right rally in 2017, white supremacist sympathizer James Alex Field Jr. had already plowed his Dodge Challenger into a crowd of counterprotestors, injuring 28 and killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer.
Arriving just after the fact, I found pandemonium, people bleeding in the streets, police trying to manage the scene and an overall sense of chaos. I spent the rest of the weekend bouncing around Charlottesville, interviewing survivors and absorbing the immediate aftermath of the domestic terrorist attack.
For weeks I experienced constant reminders of what I'd witnessed. Any loud noise — and especially the sound of a car accelerating — would set my heart racing. Sleep was elusive. And about this I felt very silly. I hadn't been there for the car attack itself, and felt that the trauma I'd observed was not truly mine to feel.
Trauma and who has ownership over it are central to Branden Jacobs-Jenkins' play "Gloria," currently undergoing a magnificent staging by Cadence Theatre Company. A Pulitzer finalist, "Gloria" is an electric tale involving toxic workplaces, the dark side of ambition, the meaning of privilege and the pressures of working in an industry in decline.
The show begins at a fictional publishing house that includes a big Manhattan magazine in its portfolio — the playwright worked for a time at The New Yorker — as some of the publication's low-rung editorial assistants begin their workday. At first, the show reads like a satiric sitcom, with the co-workers sniping amongst themselves and dealing with the quirks of an intergenerational workplace, but it doesn't take long for heavier machinations to set in.
Dean (Matt Polson) dreams of leaving his job and publishing a memoir about his experience. Kendra (Anne Michelle Forbes) would much rather shop or grab coffee than work, and Ani (Jessie Jennison) is just trying to get something accomplished in spite of the constant interruptions. Copy desk worker Gloria (Laine Satterfield) is upset that few people attended her condo-warming party, and the nervy fact checker Lorin (Happy Mahaney) just wants his younger co-workers to be quieter. Soon — and without blatantly stating what may already be obvious — their workday is shattered by tragedy, with realistic, frightening violence flying out of nowhere.
Under Anna Senechal Johnson's masterful direction, Cadence's production rises to the caliber of its script. The cast does generally great work all around, with Polson effectively navigating his character's psychological state and ambition as Dean, and Forbes aggressive and equally as ambitious as the status-conscious Kendra. Both Jennison and Joel Ashur, who plays the magazine intern Miles and others, prove so deft at playing multiple fully realized roles it's nearly comical. The lone outlier is Mahaney, who while showing a gift for physical comedy as Lorin feels cartoonish and nearly blunts the playwright's message of empathy.
Rich Mason's set proves a versatile backdrop for the two workplaces and the Starbucks location that factor into the show, and Nicholas Caviness' original music compositions add subtly between scenes.
More than a simple biting take on the media and the beasts of intrigue and gossip that fuel it, Jacobs-Jenkins script delves into the experience and representation of collective trauma, as well as the efforts of some to benefit artistically and financially from it. About these topics and others, Jacobs-Jenkins probes but offers no easy answers, instead giving us an unsettling but somewhat hopeful conclusion.
At a time when tragic events have become so commonplace that we've reached the point of public fatigue, "Gloria" is able to recapture their monstrosity by showing how humanity is responsible for and affected by them.
Cadence Theatre Company and Virginia Repertory Theatre's "Gloria" plays through June 2 at Theatre Gym, 114 W. Broad St. Visit va-rep.org or call 282-2620.