Three plays now on area stages were inspired by real-life events: a superpower scrimmage, a mass shooting, and a nuclear disaster. These timely dramas humanize the headlines and highlight the power of theater to hold a mirror up to our best and worst natures.
During a stalemate in the 1982 Soviet-American arms-control talks in Geneva, two negotiators from opposite sides of the table took an informal walk in the woods and hashed out an agreement that was fair to both sides and was immediately rejected by both sides. Out of that ironic piece of history came Lee Blessing’s ironic and engaging A Walk in the Woods.
New Century Theatre’s finely balanced production (August 2-4 at Eastworks, Easthampton) underscores both the tension and the levity arising from this odd-couple collision. Director Sam Rush gives sensitive attention to the encounter, moving things briskly while making room for emotional depth and more than a few jokes.
The jokes are delivered by the Russian, Andrey, a veteran of endless rounds of negotiation. Cynical about their prospects and both nations’ commitment to them, he finds release in flippant humor and “frivolous” distractions, like American pop culture. His unsmiling opposite number is Joan, a newcomer to the U.S team, who takes the process seriously and is dedicated to its success.
Both negotiators are consummate pros, and so are the actors who portray them. Sam Samuels’ gregarious Andrey is a Slavic pessimist with a mischievous streak. Jaris Hanson’s character was written as a man, but the relationship works much better with a woman in the role. Sober and tight-lipped, Joan is a skilled professional who’s used to being underestimated (and interrupted) by men, now gradually letting her guard down while holding her own.
Despite its Cold War setting, the play resonates with every nation-state confrontation, and its sylvan strolls, over the course of four woodland seasons, confirm the value of human connection.
The murder of a child, Tara Franklin says in a program note, “is a loss so profound that we are ill-equipped to grieve for it in any logical way.” Inspired by the 2012 Sandy Hook elementary-school shooting, On the Exhale, at Chester Theatre Company through August 4, puts a shocking twist into an all-too-common contemporary evil.
In Martín Zimmerman’s one-woman play, Franklin portrays a single mother, unnamed, whose very sense of herself is upended when her eight-year-old son’s life is blown away by a young man with an AR-15. In the chaos of mourning, grasping desperately for comprehension, the pain forms into ice around her heart. Instead of falling to pieces, or joining fellow mourners in shared sorrow, she develops an obsession with the very weapon used to destroy her child.
Franklin’s performance, in Colette Robert’s incisive staging, is restrained, even cool. In the 70-minute monologue, performed within a bleak white cube (designed by Travis George), her emotional arc is signaled by shifting colors in Lara Dubin’s lighting. She raises her voice only once or twice, only once quietly breaks down. But there’s power in that restraint.
The woman’s description of her journey — a departure from the classic six stages of grief — is couched in the second-person. She speaks of her feelings and actions in “you” statements, as if watching someone else going through them. But that “you,” and the character’s nameless anonymity, also remind us that it could happen to any of us.
Two married physicists have retired, or rather retreated, to a rustic cottage on the English seacoast. They are sheltering upwind of the radioactive exclusion zone around the nuclear power plant they helped design and where they worked before it melted down in the wake of an earthquake and tsunami. And if that sounds familiar, it was the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster that inspired The Children, now playing at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox (through Aug. 18).
In Lucy Kirkwood’s 2016 play, the meltdown and its consequences become an allegory for her real topic, suggested by the title: What is our responsibility to future generations? As one character puts it, you should “leave a place cleaner than you found it.”
In this round-robin of jealousies, regrets and recriminations, meandering discussions of aging, marriage, parenthood and career hide deeper currents. These waters are roiled by Rose, a former colleague, who arrives with a seismic proposition.
The play, widely admired on both sides of the Atlantic, is not well served in James Warwick’s listless production, which lacks both pace and focus. Jonathan Epstein gives the piece what spark and subtlety it achieves, but the two women are simply miscast. Diane Prusha’s default expression and strong suit as an actor is innocent bafflement, which is at odds with the energetic, super-organized, yoga-practicing wife the play specifies. And Ariel Bock, as Rose, though she’s come with life-changing intent, is tentative and unpersuasive.
Water, water everywhere
One more headline-echoing performance is coming up this weekend. Far Reaches is a new play-in-development from the adventurous Real Life Theatre collaborative. It’s in the emerging genre known as cli-fi, climate fiction confronting the impacts of global warming.
Ellen Morbyrne’s play envisages a not-so-future world “covered in endless ocean.” Set on a raft where “two people from completely different backgrounds make their way towards understanding,” it asks the questions “What do we remember, and how? What does it mean to survive, and what is survival worth to us?”
At the end of this week’s developmental workshop – part of a month-long A.P.E.-sponsored series of theater residencies – RLT will present a pair of staged readings in the 33 Hawley Flex Space, August 4th at 2pm and 5pm. It’s performed by Trenda Loftin and Julissa Rodríguez and designed by Julia Vincenza Whalen.