Hinckley: A Young Man's Descent Into Violence

In a new play at Guild Hall
Michael Paul and Trevor Vaughn rehearsing a scene for “Falls for Jodie” Austin Donohue

In September 2016, 35 years after attempting to assassinate President Ronald Reagan, John Hinckley Jr. was released from St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, D.C., where he had been committed after being found not guilty by reason of insanity. Last November, a federal judge ruled that Mr. Hinckley could move out of his mother’s house and live independently. 

The playwright Eric Micha Holmes, a Dramatist Guild fellow, has conjured up the young Mr. Hinckley for his two-character play, “Falls for Jodie,” which will open Wednesday for a nine-performance run at Guild Hall. Rather than focus on the shooting, Mr. Holmes has set the entire action of the play in a hotel room in New Haven, where Mr. Hinckley was drawn by an obsession with the actress and Yale student Jodie Foster that took root after he saw her in the film “Taxi Driver.”

The play focuses on Mr. Hinckley’s interaction with Eddie, a young concierge at the hotel. “Eddie was an invention,” said Mr. Holmes during a break in rehearsals for his newest play, “Mondo Tragic,” which is now playing at the National Black Theatre in Harlem. Mr. Holmes is one of three writers currently in residence there in the country’s only program dedicated to black playwrights. 

A self-styled entrepreneur, Eddie solicits John, whose father is an oil company executive, to finance a mail order business. “At first Eddie was a kind of one-note insidious force that nudges John,” said Mr. Holmes. “He was sort of like the devil on John’s shoulder.” However, during the course of the play “a kind of bizarre emotional investment happens. Eddie is protecting John, because obviously he doesn’t want him to hurt himself or somebody else.”

As the play develops, John becomes increasingly unstable and unpredictable, conceiving an unlikely plot to kidnap Ms. Foster, acquiring a pistol from a pawnshop, insisting that Black Panthers have drugged the actress and are holding her hostage, even strapping on a replica of the sleeve-gun used by Travis Bickle, Robert De Niro’s character in “Taxi Driver,” and doing a poor imitation of that actor’s “You talkin’ to me?” monologue.

The Guild Hall production stars Michael Paul as John and Trevor Vaughn as Eddie, and is directed by Bill Burford. In conversations with Mr. Holmes, Mr. Vaughn, Mr. Burford, and Josh Gladstone, the artistic director of the John Drew Theater, a consensus emerged that the play’s themes are especially relevant today.

“As the play started growing, I realized that it would be the perfect vehicle to explore white male radicalization, which I could feel burrowing underneath the Obama era’s progressivism,” said Mr. Holmes. “I thought there might be a backlash coming. So I wanted the play to illuminate the sequence of events that would push a young man closer and closer to violence. John Hinckley in the first scene is not the John Hinckley who would shoot the president.”

“One of the things I love about the play is that the discussion in the media of guns and violence and mental health is always divisive,” said Mr. Burford. “The play is personal and compassionate. It’s not about the shooting itself, but it’s about the causes of a person’s descent into that kind of violence.”

Speaking of Eddie’s development, Mr. Vaughn said. “At the beginning, the audience doesn’t know who’s leading who, but as the play goes on, Eddie, like the audience, becomes aware of John’s real issues. Eddie has gotten what he wanted from John — to start his business with the son of an oil tycoon. But he realizes John is nuts. There’s real comedy in that but also real drama.” 

The play, which was Mr. Holmes’s thesis for his M.F.A. in theater arts at the University of Iowa, had its first public reading in 2014 and has had several workshops since then, including two last year in Texas. Mr. Vaughn arranged for one at the University of North Texas, where his sister is a professor, and a second at the Performing Arts Center in McKinney, Texas, where both Mr. Vaughn and Mr. Paul grew up.

“I thought if we can punch them in the nose in Texas with this play, then it will resonate and fly everywhere else,” said Mr. Vaughn, adding that the Hinckley family lived in University Park, an affluent area of North Dallas less than 30 miles from McKinney.

“The talkbacks we had with college students were interesting,” said the actor, “because their generation grew up with high school lockdown drills and school shooters. Gun violence prevention is a much different thing than it was when I was growing up.”

“When we did it at the university,” said Mr. Holmes, “I noticed that younger people are way more versed in the language of mental illness. They really identified with having a friend who is in trouble.”

“This play is a very rare catalyst for discussion,” said Mr. Burford, “which is why we’re going to have talkbacks after every show.” He has discussed the production with Jackie Hilly, the executive director of New Yorkers Against Gun Violence, who offered to connect the production team with other experts in the field.

The play came to Mr. Gladstone and Guild Hall from Mr. Vaughn, who has performed on the East End in several productions, including “Andromeda” with Kate Mueth’s Neo-Political Cowgirls and “The Mystery of Irma Vep” at Mulford Farm.

Mr. Vaughn attended the North Carolina School of the Arts, where he met Isaac Klein, an actor, director, and Springs native. The two appeared in “The Mystery of Irma Vep,” and Mr. Klein directed Mr. Vaughn in the University of North Texas workshop of “Falls for Jodie” last October.

“Trevor pitched me on this,” said Mr. Gladstone, who added that because Mr. Klein was unavailable to direct the Guild Hall production, Mr. Vaughn suggested they approach Mr. Burford. “So there are two terrific actors, a smart director, and a piece of edgy material that speaks to the zeitgeist of all these disenfranchised lunatic assassins and gun people so prevalent today.”

Mr. Vaughn added, “As Eric put it, when he wrote this it was during a very naive, Democratic time in the Obama era. He was getting under the floorboards and letting people see the termites, which have now taken over the house.”

“Falls for Jodie” will be performed Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. through March 17. Tickets are $20, $18 for members, and $10 for students.