March 30, 1981. A shocking act committed for an even more shocking reason.
John Hinckley, Jr., a wealthy, white male with a history of mental problems, took six shots at the president of the United States outside a hotel in Washington, D.C., hitting Ronald Reagan once in the chest, critically wounding press secretary James Brady, and wounding two other men, a police officer and a Secret Service agent.
And why? To impress the actress Jodie Foster.
Hinckley was remanded to a mental health facility in lieu of prison; Reagan recovered; Brady and his wife, Sarah, became vocal gun-control advocates until Brady’s death three decades later; Foster went on to win an Oscar or two; and the whole appalling event became a punchline on late night talk shows.
Not for Eric Micha Holmes, who penned “Falls for Jodie,” a fictional two-hander opening Wednesday, March 6 at Guild Hall, directed by Bill Burford and starring Michael Paul as Hinckley and Trevor Vaughn as Eddie, the concierge at a hotel near the Yale campus when Foster was a student there.
“Hinckley exists at the intersection of things I’m interested in, like white male radicalization and mental illness,” said Holmes. “I started writing this in 2014, at the height of the most delusional but optimistic Obama era progressivism, when we weren’t really paying attention to the termites in the basement that were eating away the house. At the time, I just was poking my nose into the underbelly of liberal overconfidence.”
Out of that, the idea for “Falls for Jodie” took hold, a story of a growing obsession, and the dark undertones that can develop if pushed in the right, or wrong, direction.
“The John Hinckley who enters Scene One is not the John Hinckley who shoots the president,” Holmes said. “When you meet him for the first time, he’s a little weird, but no weirder than your weirdest cousin.” It’s Vaughn’s character, “who sees Hinckley as someone who can get him out of his blue collar situation,” who becomes the catalyst.
“I was drawn to this play the first moment that Eric Micha Holmes said he was writing a role with me in mind,” said Vaughn, a noted singer-songwriter who is no stranger to the Guild Hall stage. “I was honored and excited for the chance to walk around in a character’s shoes that were tailor fit for me. It also turned out to be a dang good play. What continues to draw me to this play are deep themes and burning dreams that fuel the inner life of the characters in gritty New Haven circa 1980.”
No surprise here, but Vaughn agreed that “these themes are still shockingly potent in 2019. ‘Falls For Jodie’ paints some complex human emotions and frailties of struggling men on the fringes of our society. Eddie hustles to create a relationship with John because he comes from a wealthy oil family and Eddie is looking for a way to move up. As the play develops and darkens in John’s reality, we see Eddie find love and a way out of a dangerous situation.”
Director Bill Burford also sees the relevancy of the play against today’s backdrop. “‘Falls for Jodie’ imagines the final days of John Hinckley, Jr.’s personal descent from a shy but promising young man into the obsessive who tried to kill Ronald Reagan. But for us today, it’s not about him. Unfortunately, this story is not just history. It’s about what we might be able to do for all kinds of at-risk young men who might be on their own descent into the unthinkable.”
Burford added that he hopes “this play will become a regular part of the national conversation about gun violence. Our playwright, Eric Micha Holmes, brings a perspective to the radicalization of young men that unifies us, not just across racial divides and state lines, but literally in every country around the world. Paired with the talkbacks afterwards, it engages us all in what we can do about it together.”
“We are always either the hero or the villain, depending on which echo chamber we find ourselves caught in,” said Paul. As to making the character sympathetic, Paul replied that he didn’t know the answer to that question. “My best shot at this is just to do what I think is true. That’s really all I ever aim for,” he said.
“It’s not a play about answers,” said Burford. “Our aim in staging it is to bring us together to look for things to try that will save lives. And not just the lives of innocent victims, but also the promise these vulnerable young men had on the day they were born, boys who might themselves be living fruitful, compassionate lives instead of inventing some desperate tragedy. In Connecticut, Colorado, Texas, Illinois, Alabama, here on Long Island. In Somalia, Scandinavia, or China, what makes a boy searching for traction as an adult turn to guns for self-respect? What do these young men’s stories share that we can do something about?”
“Falls for Jodie” runs at the John Drew Theater Wednesdays through Sundays through March 17. For tickets and further information, visit www.guildhall.org.