by Manuel Mendoza, Special Contributor, Dallas Morning News
"I drive from Dallas to Fort Worth every day to direct this play, so I'm putting carbon into the world," Carson McCain says.
She's at the helm of Stage West Theatre's production of Lungs, British playwright Duncan Macmillan's drama about a couple debating whether it's right to bring another human being onto a warming planet. McCain has thought about her carbon footprint before, but now it's on her mind all the time. She even considered including the amount of her car's daily emissions in a program note.
"Is it enough that I'm trying? That's the question that these two wonderful people are asking," she says before a recent rehearsal, sitting around a table with actors Dani Nelson and Ruben Carrazana and Stage West executive producer Dana Schultes, who chose Lungs for her company's season. The play runs from July 25 to Aug. 18.
Macmillan dashed it out during one long day back in 2011. He had just turned 30, was engaged to his girlfriend, had landed a full-time teaching job and was considering starting a family. But as full adulthood beckoned, he had anxieties about the state of the world. Afterward, he realized all the research he'd been doing on climate change for another play had made it into Lungs.
"It seems appropriate somehow that the play is as 'carbon-neutral' as possible," he wrote in an essay that accompanied its Washington, D.C., premiere, referring to its lack of props, scenery or costume changes. "I also felt that the playfulness of the form would help to make some of the more troubling issues more palatable. I wanted the audience to feel as if they were eavesdropping on a very private conversation between two thoughtful, educated, middle-class people who are struggling to do the right thing... . There are no secrets; everything pours out of them — uncensored, impulsive, raw."
Schultes, the only parent at the interview table, worries about what kind of world her 10-year-old daughter will inherit and whether there's enough concern about what is happening to the planet. Stage West is practicing what it preaches with a series of measures intended to reduce its carbon footprint, including switching to reusable and recyclable materials in its cafe and production design.
"We're hurtling towards a really destructive future, and that's hard," she says. "It's hard to talk about; it's hard to face. ... As a parent, I'm trying to set a good example: recycle, march, petition, while at the same time trying to have a conversation with her, preparing her for what she'll be processing in the future, without scaring her."
One of the appeals of Lungs is that it's 85 minutes long and has no intermission. That's becoming a common scenario in contemporary theater in an era of what Schultes calls "drive-through culture."
McCain's only concession to theatrical design conventions is a wall of recycled bottles that will serve as a backdrop. Otherwise, Nelson and Carrazana will walk around, sit on the floor and on the lip of the proscenium stage, and mostly just talk.
At rehearsal, McCain suggests that Nelson's character "W" perform a yoga sun salutation during her opening monologue. W is processing the idea raised by Carrazana's "M" while they're in line at Ikea that they think about becoming parents. Though she's always seen motherhood as her purpose, W is floored.
"I'm [expletive] shocked," she says. "It's like you punched me in the face and then asked me to do a math problem."
W has done her research on climate change and doesn't want to contribute to the problem. "The issue is certainly not shoehorned in," Nelson says. "In the course of their conversation, she presents for herself and for him all kinds of statistics and factoids that are swirling around her head, as they are for many of us who are plugged in."
But Carrazana says the environmental issues at the center of Lungs are not what he first noticed when he read the play. "I've never heard this conversation before in my life. Is this something people actually think about? It never occurred to me. ... What stuck out were the struggles that this couple is going through. You follow them through the course of a lifetime, their entire relationship."
That's Macmillan's great trick. He's managed to write a play that transcends its high concept to show two people figuring out how to be together well.
"Everyone wants to have a good life. But these characters have specific discussions about what it means to be a good person," McCain says. "Is a good person someone who raises a responsible child who could save the world, or is a good person someone who thinks about all of the political issues that are happening and decides not to have a child because it's more responsible? ... I like plays that are about two people fighting for their relationship as opposed to fighting each other."
Yet politics remains at the core of Lungs, as it does in much of Macmillan's work. He has since co-written a stage version of George Orwell's 1984, as well as 2071, a play in the form of a lecture in collaboration with a climate-change scientist.
"You could either give up, or you could devote your entire life to recycling and being an activist, and that's a noble pursuit," Carrazana says. "Or you could do something in-between."
"The question the play continues to ask is, 'Is in-between enough?" McCain says. "Is it enough to recycle and march and use metal straws and glass bottles?"
Schultes says — spoiler alert — Lungs doesn't provide an answer. "What's missing from a lot of the political conversations around this is the recognition of the messiness of humanity, how messy it is to make these personal choices in the face of anxiety. The play is very messy, which is beautiful."