Chicago Theatre Review
Bonding in the Bomb Shelter
We’re Gonna Be Okay – American Theatre Company
We’re seeing more post-apocalyptic plays these days, particularly as the political climate of the world around us grows increasingly tense and the Doomsday Clock moves closer to midnight. It’s a comforting thought and kudos to any playwright who can mine some humor out of this potentially hopeless situation. Basil Kreimendahl, a resident playwright at New Dramatists, premiered their play to great acclaim at 2017’s Humana Festival. This production at ATC is a bit different and very exciting in that artistic director Will Davis, himself a trans-identified director and choreographer, has cast his production racially and gender-blind. It works surprisingly well and adds another layer of contemporary understanding to what, at first, appears to be a period comic drama.
Set in 1962 suburbia, the play opens on the patios of two close neighbors. Both are grilling what will be a communal dinner for both families. Efran is especially proud of the juicy steaks he’s purchased from a salesman and his good friend Sul is roasting corn on the cob. Efran is the wheeler-dealer, the more affluent, overly confident and loudly verbose head of his household. He’s trying to coerce his buddy into joining him in digging a bomb shelter below their houses, a space big enough to accommodate both families. Sul is a blue collar worker who’s skilled with his hands. He’s not as well-to-do as Efran, but that’s okay in his book. The basic creature comforts are all he needs to get along in life.
We soon meet their respective spouses and children. Leena is Efran’s perky, happily optimistic wife, a woman filled with an abundance of joie de vivre. Leena, who’s put her degree in biology on ice to be a housewife and mother, is into crafting and every form of self-discovery in vogue during the Kennedy era. Jake is their adolescent son, a kid who enjoys baseball and may possibly be in the closet.
Mag, Sul’s complacent wife, also seems satisfied with her family life and role as wife, homemaker and mother; but she greatly appreciates Leena’s friendship and is receptive to her suggestion to become involved in some kind of creative endeavor. Mag is also quietly worried about the future. She’s particularly concerned for the happiness of her daughter, Deanna, a guitar-strumming teenager who’s turned off by Jake’s halfhearted advances and titillated by Leena’s free spirit.
The looming presence of the Cuban Missile Crisis motivates Efran to insist that Sul join him in building a joint underground fallout shelter. With his brains and money and Sul’s brawn and knowhow, Efran snowballs his friend into working with him to complete the project, as soon as possible. Soon we hear the voice of John F. Kennedy addressing the nation about the potential disaster and suddenly the comedy of the first act becomes darker in act two. As the families attempt to coexist beneath the earth’s surface, Efran comes undone because there’s no broom to sweep up their mess. He’s lost his power and can’t provide all the answers, and this drives him to madness. Leena loses her optimism and her patience, Jake reluctantly tries to fulfill his expected role as the new founder of the human race, Deanna sees Leena in a whole new light and Mag and Sul try to make the best of an awful situation with their neighbors.
As civilization crumbles, manners begin to fade and boundaries start to blur. Kreimendahl’s play suggests how our society, filled with all kinds of anxieties, may need to work hard to find their identities and examine who they’ll become if, indeed, a larger power knocks them out of control. The playwright seems to say they’re ultimately going to be okay. The scrutiny by these characters, who come across as “types” than actual, real people, is made more interesting by casting women and transgender actors in the six roles.
The always extraordinary Kelli Simpkins, whose stellar performances have astounded audiences, from Chicago to Off Broadway, is once again terrific, as Efran. Simpkins’ strong portrayal is driven by Efrans ego and his needs and wants. It abounds with energy and streams of incessant chatter. He’s nicely contrasted by Penelope Walker’s portrayal of Sul. Another actress with an impressive resume, Ms. Walker gives a performance that’s subtly nuanced, carefully controlled and wisely strong in her silences.
Adithi Chandrashekar, as Leena, bursts into this production with wit and humor. She’s delightful as she encourages her friend to dream, to dance, to enjoy life through creativity. She’s comfortable with her own body, her decisions in life and her role with her family and friends. Ms. Chandrashekar is generous and appealing eloquent in this role and an actress to watch. As Mag, BrittneyLove Smith is wonderful. She begins the play as a somewhat shy, reserved wife and mother who is just starting to discover and enjoy life’s little moments. She loves her husband and daughter but has forgotten to love herself. The delicate and dangerous situation in which she finds herself brings out her character’s strength and determination.
As the two children, the talented Avi Roque is enjoyable and something special as Jake. Their excellent performances have been previously enjoyed in productions at ATC and in Steppenwolf’s “The Crucible.” Here they meticulous and honestly portray a young man who’s struggling with his own identity, something Roque has quite likely experienced themselves. Feelings of guilt, confusion and nowhere to turn for advice, Jake struggles to understand his role in the world. Sarai Rodriguez plays young Deanna with warmth and candor. She, too, plays a teenager who’s not entirely comfortable with the role she’s expected to play in life. She finds in Leena a role model, an exciting trailblazer, someone she could almost love. Ms. Rodriguez plays this girl with outspoken openness and love.
William Boles’ spartan scenic design is dominated by an elevated platform that represents the families’ adjoining yards. This space transforms for the second act into the subterranean bomb shelter housing the six inhabitants. Boles also offers a unique look at the interior of Sul’s house, seen backstage, as the audience enters through their living room and into the auditorium. Brilliant lighting, created by Rachel K. Levy, and a sound design, courtesy of Jeffrey Levin, also enhance the look of this environment. Melissa Ng has appropriately outfitted her cast in costumes that reflect their status and the time period.
This unusual play, skillfully directed by Will Davis, is at first filled with sitcom-like humor that slowly dissolves into thought-provoking angst and drama. Davis’ unique casting adds another dimension to this production and offers even more food for thought. As the two families bond in their bomb shelter, theatergoers will reflect on how this event from the 60’s somewhat mirrors our recent tentative relationship with North Korea and the Middle East. It’s story about self-discovery under adverse conditions that strikes a familiar cord.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented January 25-March 4 by American Theater Company, 1909 W. Byron, Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling the ATC box office at773-409-4125 or by going to www.atcweb.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.