Reviewed Performance: 7/27/2019
Reviewed by Charlie Bowles, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
It's an existential question. I remember struggling with this in the 60s. "With all the crap we see in the world, do we really want to have kids?" A close corollary is, "So what do we tell our kids about what they see?"
Duncan MacMillan explored this in his 2011 play, Lungs, when another crisis loomed large, one that seems naive by today's standards. Back then we worried that our human footprint might destroy the world if we didn't change lifestyles immediately. Today we know it already is and it almost seems trite. But the scientific issues are pedestrian to the real human questions. Should we add to the mess with a new child? Are we doing enough? Are we good people?
This Stage West regional premier of Lungs is outstanding, funny and thought-provoking. Those in the know may have encountered Duncan MacMillan in Circle Theatre's production of Every Brilliant Thing, a hilarious one-man show that involved drafted audience members to explore his life experiences, the things that were really important. MacMillan loves to depart from the rules of conventional theater and he does so with Lungs as well.
Director Carson McCain crafted a production that honored the spirit of MacMillan's ultra-minimal production, but added a visual framework to the stage. Floor-to-ceiling sheer gauze curtains hung across the stage with an arresting art display of hanging, glass bottles, presumably to remind us that our oceans are filling with plastic and trash. Production elements were otherwise minimal. Clare Floyd DeVries' framework added context to the actors' playing area to make them more interesting than moving around on an empty stage. Jared Land's lighting showed little color, but nearly-imperceptible intensity changes in the lights affected stage shadows and created mood moments for the actors. Preston Gray's sound design was nearly non-existent until the last moment when a musical piece quietly underpinned a final scene, but that really existed more as an atmospheric effect. Together these created a load of atmosphere and a sense of simmering chaos in the set.
Evan Michael Woods dressed the actors casually, though it looked like they just met at Kohls and he said, find something you'd like to wear. Clothes never changed, since they were on-stage through the performance. The chosen clothes showed a casual comfort that worked in all locations and environments, but these guys could have worn anything.
Two actors play nameless characters in Lungs. An unmarried couple struggles with questions about kids and environment and the gulfs between them. Underlying their struggle are questions about who they are, together and alone. The big question, "Am I loved," affects their future even more than the environment.
Dani Nelson plays a 30-something in the throes of a science PhD program. As an extreme analytical thinker, this girl is wordy and carries most of the text of the play. It's her words that reveal the environmental Armageddon she imagines, so Nelson had a big memory challenge. Yet she rolled out this word soup, filled with facts and details and stats, words that came out in hyper-speed. And yet, she made them understandable, easy to grasp, and heart-felt. Nelson also created an outsized exaggeration of the academic thinker, one who sees the world in predictable patterns and logical explanations. So stage movement often traced squares on the floor and followed straight lines in her thought moments. Her body posture during scatological tirades revealed her life centered in her head. The world is a thought experiment. Anything less is chaos.
But there's also great transformation in Nelson's character. She rode a wave of emotional variation as a potential parent foreshadowing massive changes in her body and her life. She worries about a new child's future, but also fears becoming a parent, and here Nelson found the depth of her character's real concern. Little mannerisms and tics Nelson performed revealed her character's real feelings – rapidly, uncontrollable tapping fingers on her legs, chaotic stuttering as she rolled out words that meant more about fear than knowledge, even furtive glances at her partner to see if he was "getting" what she was saying. He wasn't. These little pieces of jewelry as acting moments are things people can't describe, but those moments are long-remembered after the words are forgotten. Ruben Carrazana played an archetypal male with few words, even fewer thoughts, often unable to understand the vast vocabulary of his mate. This man feels life. He's someone who discovers emotions through surprise rather than analysis. But it's he who first broaches the idea of having a child, a moment of creation most males avoid thinking about. That his discussion springs on her in the middle of Ikea shows a great sense of the importance of his idea, but he's ignorant of the import of context for such an idea. Carrazana let his character fall aimlessly into the crisis he started, but quickly recoiled from her reaction. He has a typical tendency of men to stare silently into the abyss when chaos breaks out. Carrazana created a perfect shell for this emptiness as he planted himself in space, sometimes watching her, trying to disappear.
Of course these are complex characters, both unbalanced in many ways. In fact, during one moment of trying to keep up with her tirade, Carrazana walked a tight rope on the stage, balancing on tip-toes, dangling between the question, "Should I say something or just pretend to listen?" Males in the audience could identify with this.
Both actors used pauses effectively. Nelson's rapid-fire delivery had to be interrupted often to allow us to keep up and her pauses at specific moments allowed us to stop, think of what was said, or get ready to hear something important. Those moments revealed something in the young woman's psyche, words that showed a depth of fear about how a child would affect her. Even an extreme thinker has deep feelings. For him, pauses are pathological, as befits a male struggling to understand his small world. Carrazana used these effectively to show his deep yearnings while revealing his thoughts. These people share similar concerns. They don't speak the same language.
McCain's direction included an important feature of this talk-heavy minimal-action story. There's nothing on-stage to distract, so movement becomes crucial. It's not a monologue, but a heavy dialog with the audience. The actors have to move to focus attention and Stage West's mainstage is not that big. McCain and her actors moved these characters around the stage, using it carefully, at once on the down left lip, at another upstage split behind and in front of the bottle display. This movement was purposeful. It kept audience eyes moving and created resonances with the text. This was exquisite direction.
Lungs is a thought-provoking comedy. In the midst of pathos, the words and reactions touch our own deep thoughts. This is funny! But it also covers lifetimes of these characters and shows the arcs of our own lives.
McCain kept the pace very fast, but location and time changes, even shifting to a moment four years later in the story, were instantaneous. One second they were in a park watching life unfold; the next they were in a Starbucks years later. No light or sound changed – just a simple shift in their imaginary scene and they entered a new part of their character's life. Since there's no break, almost 90-minutes of words whip by comfortably. I loved this play and its production. I cannot recommend it enough as something unique in theater today. It has adult themes and language, but it's the kind of work that causes a thoughtful audience to walk away and say, "What did I just see?" The script is smart, funny, and challenging to anyone's perceptions. The direction and design provides a perfect structure for a touching, but instructive, story. It has no answers, just observations. And these two actors create larger-than-life characters in their extreme flawed human-ness. We see ourselves in them.
Massive kudos to Dana Schultes and Stage West for bringing this gem to North Texas. It worked.