The word “safe” comes up over and over again in MIDSUMMER IN NEWTOWN, Lloyd Kramer’s elegiac yet emotionally gripping documentary about the aftereffects of the Sandy Hook Massacre on the survivors. As in, the sense of being safe has been taken from everyone involved forever. The question becomes how to deal with it.
Kramer’s film is an intimate examination of people struggling with the full knowledge that there will never be “normal” for them again. The framework is the casting, rehearsal, and final performance of a musical adaptation of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,”, but the intimate glimpses of the people participating make this a profound meditation on the power of theater to heal, and the strength of ordinary people to go on knowing that they will never make sense of what happened to them.
On December 14, 2012, 26 people were killed by a gunman at the Sandy Hook Elementary School. Twenty of the were children. It is significant that the first time we hear the name of the gunman, who took his own life, it’s said by Nelba Márquez-Greene, who lost her daughter Anna. It’s remarkable that, given all the feelings she has expressed to us up until that moment, when she comes to the killer, she wonders if intervention when he had been Anna’s age might have helped. Hence, she channeled her grief into The Anna Grace Project, an outreach to kids at risk. Her musician husband, Jimmy, composed music. It helps, as does their faith, and their surviving son.
Everyone else copes in their own way, with no one quite sure how to react to one another as the days stretch out into weeks and months. As confusing as that is, reaching the kids, though, the ones who lost friends, who heard the gunshots, who saw their parents crumble, is even more problematical. Bringing in Michael Unger, a New York theater director to stage “A ROCKIN’ Midsummer Night’s Dream” seems therapeutic. And it is. Sammy, who went from outgoing to withdrawn, blossoms, throwing herself into her role as one of Titania’s company of fairies by giving serious and sophisticated thought to the subtleties of being a wild woodland creature. As Unger muses on the mix of kids and professional actors that he has brought together, he notes that he doesn’t treat the children any differently that the adults. He lovingly allows them to rise to the occasion. And when the endlessly upbeat Tain, an only child who spent the massacre comforting a friend, breaks into tears when the play is over because it means he’s losing adult friends he’s made, it’s a catharsis of sorts for him, and a relief for us to see him finally being able to vent some of the feelings he’s been carrying for so long as his mother validates those feelings and gently comforts him.
The casting, rehearsals, and final performance are intercut with people sharing memories of the massacre. It is meant to be bittersweet, to see them carrying on, but with memories like those of the music teacher, who smelled gunpowder while making sure her students knew that she loved them. It’s meant to be wrenching as parents recount hearing the news of the shooting, and then agonizing as they waited to find out what had happened to the kids they had sent off to school that morning. There is no melodrama here, and surprisingly few tears, but the palpable sense of grief coupled with the still fresh sense of shock defines in very real terms why there will be no normal for any of them. And why they will not let it break them.
MIDSUMMER IN NEWTOWN is tough viewing, but the rewards are immense. To hear Márquez-Greene say with utter conviction that love wins is to stand in awe of her. As part of a dialogue about violence in our society, it is essential. As a way to process the senseless, it is indispensable.