October 6, 2021

Based on Real Events, “Sniper” Probes a Young Killer’s Past; Theatre Intime Succeeds with Bonnie Culver’s Harrowing Drama

“SNIPER”: Performances are underway for “Sniper.” Presented by Theatre Intime and directed by Sabina Jafri ’24, the play runs through October 10 at the Hamilton Murray Theater. After (fictional) teenager Anthony Vaccaro (Dominic Dominguez, standing, center) commits a fatal mass shooting, he probes his relationships with people in his past. The cast includes, from left, Violet Prete, David Smith, Luke Pascucci, Nemo Newman, Solomon Bergquist, and Kate Stewart. (Photo by Elliot Lee)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

Sniper is a psychological, often harrowing drama that examines the past — and state of mind — of a teenager who fatally shoots multiple citizens of his small town. Playwright Bonnie Culver loosely bases the play (which ran at Center Stage, NYC in 2005) on a shooting in Olean, N.Y., where she happened to be at the time.

In 1974, 17-year-old Anthony F. Barbaro randomly fired on people from third floor windows of a high school, onto a shopping center. Three people were killed, and 11 were injured. Eleven months later, Barbaro hanged himself in his jail cell.

Princeton University’s Theatre Intime is presenting Sniper. The production is in person, but both the cast and the audience are masked.

Director Sabina Jafri states in a program note, “We have been challenged on our decision to produce such a sensitive piece of work. However … it was important to bring this show to the stage because it examines a significant issue that will not be resolved unless it is acknowledged and discussed.”

“We honor the lives lost that day,” Jafri continues. “In our telling of this story, we seek to emphasize the question of why a person, even one with significant trauma of his own, would ever kill other human beings.”

In an interview with this writer, Jafri declines to name the organization — some of whose members had “had trauma with gun violence” — that objected to the production, “because we have resolved the conflict.” But she says that the agreed-upon solution is “to make sure that our list of content warnings for the show was widely distributed, and very thorough.” The content warnings occupy a full page in the program, and include “gun violence, suicide, mentions of homophobia and racism, and difficult family dynamics.”

Sniper begins with a lengthy, unsparing monologue delivered by a fictionalized version of the shooter, renamed Anthony Vacarro. “They asked me what I thought that day,” Anthony says. “Did I read about Vietnam? Did I listen to rock music? They wanted to know what I saw when I pulled the trigger. I told them. Roses.”

Dominic Dominguez’s delivery of Anthony’s lines is by turns eerily matter-of-fact and vociferously explosive. Dominguez punctuates the performance with anguished physical activity, often repeatedly — rhythmically — banging on surfaces. It is a passionate, vivid portrayal. Upon delivering the line about the rose, Dominguez picks one up and pulls at the petals, establishing a recurring motif.

Jafri observes that some of the objections to the production stem from a concern that “the stories of the victims were not highlighted.” However, while we do not learn much about their backgrounds, the impact of their loss still is keenly felt. Each victim, who has been standing, falls to the ground after being briefly named or described by Anthony.

The mood of the scene is heightened by Nicabec Casido’s lighting and Eliyana Abraham’s sound design. A searing red light; and droning, dissonant music, are interrupted by the flashing, wailing siren of a police car.

At the jail, Anthony is questioned by an unenthusiastic, frustrated defense attorney, Mack Lewis (played by David Smith). “You heard voices? A ghost of your dead brother?” Mack inquires, fishing for an explanation. “Maybe it was God or the Devil.” This speech is a crafty rhetorical device on Culver’s part. While Mack appears to be trying to pinpoint a single, proximate cause of the shooting, we will see that the late brother and religion are contributing factors.

Later, Mack’s desperation to find the reason for Anthony’s actions will be contrasted with the dispassionate, probing psychologist Dr. Mackenzie (Fatima Diallo),

There is a series of flashbacks to Anthony’s life with his family. His late brother, Chris — who dies in Vietnam and is mourned as a war hero — is never seen onstage, but his effect on the family is felt.

Anthony’s father, John (Luke Pascucci) favors Chris, showing limited interest in the more introspective Anthony. A Wikipedia entry about the original shooting notes that Barbaro was a member of his school’s rifle team; in Sniper we see John push Anthony to pursue the activity. John also distances himself from Anthony’s mother, Louise (Alexis Maze), preferring to frequent a nightspot with the placid (and more morally centered) police chief, Rollins (Nemo Newman).

Generally Anthony is on better terms with the more nurturing Louise. Costume designer Elliot Lee outfits the character with a bright yellow apron, reflecting the sunny mood she wants to project. However, her maternal disposition evaporates when Anthony wants to keep a jacket that belonged to Chris, which Louise — in an attempt to manage her grief — wants to donate to a rummage sale. After a lengthy argument about the matter, Anthony pulls at the jacket in anguish, recalling his behavior with the rose.

We see other adults and peers in Anthony’s life. In an apt dual role, Smith plays the stern Principal McNamara, who gives Anthony — then in fifth grade — a note to take home for being late to school. Another latecomer, Anthony’s friend Susan (infused with feisty perkiness by Kate Stewart), refuses to accept her note, defying McNamara. It is the first time Anthony sees authority questioned.

After Chris’s funeral, Anthony talks to the officiating priest, Father Keenan (portrayed by Solomon Bergquist as empathetic but reserved). Anthony is interested in becoming a priest himself; he wants to be a source of comfort to people. Years later, however, a devastating set of events involving his friend Tom (Violet Prete) causes Anthony to have a crisis of faith. As he interrogates Father Keenan, Anthony brandishes a book about Church history — and tugs at the pages.

Jafri is careful to make time for silence between scenes, to give the audience a chance to process everything that happens. She also makes astute use of vertical levels. A scene in which Anthony kneels in front of Susan (who is outgrowing their relationship) is contrasted with a tableau in which Anthony stands on a platform, towering above his victims.

Mack’s notion of voices in Anthony’s head is depicted on stage. The other characters are given their own lines of dialogue, which they deliver simultaneously as they physically close in on Anthony. It is a haunting depiction of the script’s theme; Culver suggests that it is not one incident on which the shooting can be blamed, but an accumulation of small, subtle psychological lacerations.

The flashbacks to crucial moments in Anthony’s life are presented, out of chronological order, as pieces of a puzzle — a concept that will be explored physically by the production — albeit a puzzle whose solution is left to the audience.

This largely is what makes the play disturbing: it forces us to acknowledge that horrific actions often are difficult to predict or explain. We can only try to examine a set of events that might have led to a better outcome had they happened differently.

Set design is (purposefully) minimal. On the stage are blocks, which have been covered with “a series of wallpapers with a significant symbol for each character,” Graphic Designer Mel Hornyak explains in a program note. In designing the patterns Hornyak intends “to use designs, motifs, and colors common in the 1970s.”

Throughout the show it is clear that the actors and design team understand and support Jafri’s directorial vision. This unity among Theatre Intime’s student artists results in unity of Culver’s script with this courageous, impassioned production.

Sniper will play at the Hamilton Murray Theater in Murray Dodge Hall, Princeton University, through October 10. A talkback with playwright Bonnie Culver will follow the October 9 performance. Ten percent of all proceeds from the production will be donated to the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. For tickets, show times, and further information call (609) 258-5155 or visit theatreintime.org.