Volume 74, Number 37 | January 19 -25, 2005

Center Stage,
148 West 21st Street, 4th floor
(212) 352-3101, Opens Jan. 19

John O’Brien, left and Nicole Raphael in Sniper opening Wed., Jan 19 at Center Stage in Chelsea.

Play looks at first of the high school rampages

By Jerry Tallmer

They asked me what I thought that day. What TV shows did I watch? 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. They opened up like roses . . .

Mr. Alexander was number one. I asked him twice to give me the keys, but he just stood there staring at the gun. He never stopped staring at it.

I laid the shells out on the window sill in the classroom. Twenty-four. One o’clock. Two women came out of Bachman’s Department Store across the street. I watched them through my scope until they were beside a blue Ford facing me. The younger one reached down to put the keys in the ignition. I gave her number two. Tricky shot, Through the windshield, down through the steering wheel, and into her belly....

Thus begins a play called “Sniper,” and the speaker is 17-year-old Anthony Vaccaro, a kid based on the real-life, real death, Anthony Barbaro, an honor student who on December 30, 1974, in upstate Olean, New York, took a gun up to the third floor of his high school, shot three people to death, wounded a dozen others, and thus became one of the nation’s first headlined teenage rampage killers.

The play, which has been a long time getting to New York — is playing at Center Stage on West 21st Street — is by a woman named Bonnie Culver, who the other night, over a cup of tea, said:

“This play started the day the event happened. I was there, in Olean, that afternoon, buying a wedding dress with my mother. We pulled out of a parking lot and left for home, Port Allegheny, Pennsylvania, at 1:30. The shooting started between 2 and 2:30.

“In the car we heard an emergency broadcast for everyone to evacuate downtown Olean, with no further details. That night, at home, we turned on the TV news and saw the whole thing.”

And felt . . . what?

“Numbed survivor guilt — and fascination.”

Bonnie Culver — “I’m divorced, what can I tell you?” — is a professor of English and co-director of a masters-of-arts program in creative writing at Wilkes University, Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. (The other half of that directorate is J. Michael Lennon, who is also archivist of Norman Mailer’s papers.)

“I probably tried to write this play for 20 years,” Ms. Culver says. “Wrote a lot of other plays. This one came out like a bad TV movie until I came to a workshop of the American Folk Theater, here in New York in the early 1990s.

“I wrote the opening monologue, and it stayed the same until now, word for word. Since then there’s been a series of life developments — my life. I was in a bad car accident, had 30 surgeries. My daughter was 4. Now she’s 22 and is assistant basketball coach at the university.

“The first draft was a deadly serious three acts. After a couple of workshops and readings, I threw it all out and started all over again, in 1992, ‘93. This one now” — starring John O’Brien as the teenage gunman — “runs 90 minutes.”

What’s not in the play, or only allusively in the play, is that Anthony Barbaro hanged himself the night before he was to go on trial. As for the rest, “the only facts I used were those right out of the newspaper” — though for dramatic purposes she has upped the death toll from three to eight.

The greater part of “Sniper” encompasses a series of attempts by a doctor, a priest, and a police chief for what made Anthony do this. They do not succeed. Nor are they able to supply Anthony with the answers, the terrible peace, for which he is seeking.

“All of that,” says the playwright, “comes out of my life and is a composite of my imagining, because it’s what I felt.” And what she does feel, “being isolated where I live in a beautiful, wild, very raw area that’s kind of like Montana.”

After “Sniper” had placed second in a Drama League contest. It was sent by one of the Drama League readers to Adam Hill, who gave it a showcase production at his acting studio in West Hollywood, California. It is Adam Hill who is now — after long delays thanks in part to the untimely advent of the Oklahoma City and Columbine horrors — directing it here.

“We got letters after Columbine that we were glorifying violence.” But the piece finally ran for a month as a Phoenix production in Red Bank, New Jersey, where it won a Perry Award as Best Original Play.

Bonnie Culver’s agent, Leona Adamo, wanted to wait until all the money was in place. “The final irony: Leona died in a car accident in the Poconos a year and a half ago.” But “Sniper,” at last, is here.

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