"Finish Line," the documentary play that Joey Frangieh and Lisa Rafferty created verbatim from accounts furnished them by a number of witnesses, doctors, and others impacted by the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, braids and juxtaposes those accounts in powerful ways.
The play (a coproduction of Frangieh's Boston Theater Company and the Boch Center) tastefully avoids any hint of the gruesome by restricting its verite to the words of which it is composed. There's no set; instead, the stage harbors bare light bulbs that seem to float in space (some dangling, others mounted on poles). This is a space for hearing -- or rather, listening; the images come to us, but they're supplied by our own imaginations or, as the case may be, memories. (Jeff Adelbert designed the lighting, and David Remedies the sound design.)
A photographer with the Boston Globe (Danny Bolton) does his best to preserve images of events as they unfold around him. A doctor with wartime medical experience (Lewis Wheeler) heads to a hospital after running the Marathon himself, only to find -- to his shock -- that the victims coming in suffer from the sorts of IED-inflicted wounds he's seen all too often in places like Afghanistan. A young woman (Tonasia Jones) caught in the blast of one of the devices describes her almost surreal near-death experience. Two mothers (Karen MacDonald and Paula Plum) alternate in relating their fear and anguish as they search for missing children. A news anchor (Plum) deftly explains the dilemma she finds herself in when she sees what's going on and wants to rush over to investigate -- only for her conflicting maternal instincts to take over and ensure she ushers her child to safety. An emergency medical technician (Greg Maraio) describes the terror he feels while going about his job, hearing fallacious reports claiming the destruction of a medical center across town and unsure whether his hospital might come under attack.
Costumer Tyler Kinney avoids wardrobe that speaks too specifically to job descriptions, partly because the cast members often have to portray various individuals but also, one can't help feeling, to keep the focus on the people themselves, emphasizing -- for example -- Wheeler's character, Dr. King, as a human being caught in horrific circumstances, rather than using his words as a form of expert testimony. His horror at seeing the kinds of wounds he's seeing -- here, in America -- stems only in part from his first-hand knowledge of medicine and battle trauma. That horror is emphasized by his specialized knowledge, and we pick up on that, but more essential is his primal sense of sympathy for the injured.
So too can we plug right into the fears of the agitated mothers played by MacDoanld and Plum, both of whom come to learn of sons and daughters who have lost limbs; MacDonald's monologue is especially wrenching, as she describes the evil nature of the bombs, which contained shrapnel intended to inflict maximal harm.
In only 90 minutes, "Finish Line" relays the full experience of that day: The morning's crisp, Marathon-friendly perfection; the confusion and shock of the detonations; a wild swirl of rumor and conjecture; overwhelming emotions of anger, pain, and loss, as the situation crystallizes and casualties are identified; and a communal unification that saw strangers open their doors and extend the hand of compassion to those in need.
In addition to those mentioned above, the cast includes Omar Robinson, playing a police officer; Amie Lytile, who portrays a badly wounded teacher worried about how her injuries will affect her young charges; Katy Sullivan, who plays a doctor who was at the scene and sought to help those who had been hurt; Sam Tanabe, who portrays a young runner and whose description of his enthusiastic mother brings a note of levity to the show; and Rachel Beleman and Gigi Watson, who are credited with the singing of the song "RISE," which concludes the play.
The recollections the cast interpret are not imitations or impersonations, but they do preserve emotional truths. The effect is partially like that of a collage; usual notions of objectivity, narrative distance, and pacing fall aside in favor of the sense of immediacy the first-person accounts create. Here and there, Frangieh makes directorial choices that stitch the play's pieces closer together, having characters address one another as they tel their stories.
The accounts are remarkably articulate, even poetic -- perhaps the function of judicious editing, or perhaps a matter of having had so much raw material from which to winnow and choose. (Frangieh and Rafferty worked from interviews with nearly 100 people.) In any case, the stories told here carry enormous poignancy and power. The play's major weakness, sad to say, is the song at the end, which feels out of place and inadequate. The idea, no doubt, was to cap the show with a moment of uplift, but the song isn't needed to accomplish that ending. The words themselves -- raw, heart spoken, true -- do that for us.
Words are also the problem for anyone attempting to being the reviewer's art to this show. Cathartic; consoling; triumphant; one might use all these adjectives to describe "Finish Line," and they would be apt. They just wouldn't be enough. The best one might say is that this play speaks for itself. To know that, you have to go and see it. I recommend that you do.
"Finsih Line" continues through March 26 at the Shubert Theatre. For tickets and more information please go to https://www.bostontheater.org/#finishlinebtc