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Theatre in Review: Natural Shocks (WP Theater)

Pascale Armand. Photo: Joan Marcus.

Can one be mortally menaced by a metaphor? That's the question hanging over Lauren Gunderson's new play. We are in the unfinished basement, somewhere in the Midwest, of Angela's house; she has chosen this gritty space to address us because a tornado is on the way. It's certainly an odd time to be letting down one's hair to an audience of total strangers -- Angela behaves as if we are in the room with her, riding out the storm -- but, as she insists, "We're gonna answer everything."

Which, basically, she proceeds not to do, at least not at first. In the first portion of Natural Shocks, Gunderson earns some mild laughs from Angela's fascination with her chosen career, which is insurance. This has to do with her interest in actuarial calculations -- which, to her, is a thing of romance. (An early career as a roulette croupier confirms this: "Insurance is the ultimate game of change," she adds.) The evening's biggest laugh comes when she speaks of reinsurance in hushed tones of reverence. ("I'm excited enough for all of us," she assures us.) All of this, one gathers, provides her with a psychological defense against a world of chaos, represented by, among other things, tornados.

With the wind whipping up outside, Angela further confides to us about her strained relationship with her mother. Despite her memories of her standing over the stove, singing the Judy Garland classic "Get Happy," Angela says, with emphasis, "We were not friends," adding, "Her bedtime stories used to scare the shit out of me." She also mentions her disappointing marriage, to a man of whom her mother thoroughly disapproved; why she married him is something of a mystery -- the best explanation seems to be that he was good enough at the time -- but the relationship has decayed to the point where he is at least psychologically cruel.

But here's a tip: When, early on, a character in a play says, casually, "I have no problem with lying," fasten your seatbelt, because she is probably prepared to deliver one whopper after another. Indeed, Angela has been less than candid about her situation, and, one by one, the real details drip, drip, drip out, including infidelity, physical abuse, and worse. It soon becomes apparent that the tornado is the least of Angela's problems; in fact, it may not even be real, but a stand-in for a more immediate source of danger. Here's another tip: As Chekhov taught us, when a gun is produced, don't expect it to be locked away in the closet.

Clearly, we are meant to feel bad for Angela and her multiplying problems, but there's a good chance that you might instead be irritated, with the object of your ire being Gunderson and her bag of playwriting tricks. There are indications that Angela has a probing, independent mind: I rather liked her criticism of "the Whole Foods people, the kombucha people, the people that really truly believe that nature is pure and kind and organic." She adds, provocatively, "Cancer is 'all-natural,' too." Overall, however, the first half of Natural Shocks doesn't provide enough detail for Angela to come across as a flesh-and-blood woman; instead, the script repeatedly harps on the same few points: her love of insurance, which is explained at length; her generically rendered disagreements with her wanly rendered mother; and her unhappy marriage to a man whose personality remains undescribed. Once the truth starts slipping out, the mechanics of the play are laid bare for all to see: Rather than engage with the story of a complex, three-dimensional character, Gunderson is relying entirely on the audience's natural revulsion at violence against women. In my book, this counts as manipulation.

This is nothing against Pascale Armand, who, as Angela, works hard to win over the audience; then again, at the performance I attended, she stumbled over her lines several times. Whether this is because of late-breaking changes to the script, I cannot say; in any case, May Adrales' direction follows the outlines of Gunderson's script without adding any extra emotional heft.

The production design is the best thing about the evening. Lee Savage's basement set, with its cinder block walls, linoleum floor, and piles of boxes, is a fine piece of photorealism, and Amith Chandrashaker's lighting design includes illumination creeping in through the tiny window at stage left with the precise quality of the daylight -- the sun backlighting a cloudy sky -- that one sees just before a major storm. Nathan A. Roberts and Charles Coes have provided original music and storm effects vivid enough to make any Midwesterner sweat. Jen Caprio's costume is perfectly okay.

I won't reveal the outcome of Natural Shocks except to note that it is thoroughly dispiriting, leaving one with the feeling of being lectured about a social problem for which there can be no real debate. Clearly, Gunderson sees Natural Shocks as a teachable moment; I would have preferred a play. -- David Barbour

(14 November 2018)

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