When faced with nuclear annihilation, it may seem pointless to ask how your family will gather for dinner after the bomb drops. But that nagging concern about etiquette and connection and the dining room table lies at the heart of “We’re Gonna Be Okay,” now running at American Theater Company. And while the production provides clues for how society would rebuild itself after disaster — changing its essential shape and doing away with all tables — the script meanders once the radioactive threat becomes real, undercutting its examination of progress, community, and timing.
Efran (Kelli Simpkins, owning the stage as in last year’s “Men On Boats”) is the proud patriarch of a tight nuclear family, happy in his marriage to Leena (Adithi Chandrashekar), a crafter and nascent women’s libber, and content to bark orders at his distracted son Jake (Avi Roque). But it is 1962, and Efran worries about war. He wants his neighbor Sul (Penelope Walker) to help him construct a bomb shelter across their shared property line. The clammed-up Sul is reluctant, but his anxious and grieving wife Mag (BrittneyLoveSmith) encourages him to protect his family; their daughter Deanna (Saraí Rodriguez) is as distracted as Jake, absent-mindedly strumming her guitar and ignoring his questions about whether or not they will be called upon to repopulate the planet. Once the Cuban Missile Crisis begins, the families must decide whether or not to take shelter, and how to reconcile their differing points of view once they are underground.
Despite the two-dimensional bombs hanging over the set, ready to strike at any moment, nothing about Will Davis’ colorful and lively production feels dread-drenched or dirge-ready. Obviously, the audience already knows the outcome of the Cuban Missile Crisis, so being ahead of the characters helps us laugh at their problems. But Davis also puts the humor in Basil Kreimendahl’s script front and center, with each performer eagerly throwing out 1960s platitudes and attitudes that both seem recognizable and ridiculous to us now. Simpkins is particularly fine as Efran, ranging all over the stage, wheedling neighbors until they give in to the big sales pitch; fear underlines every step she takes. Chandrashekar provides warmth that allows the other characters to grow, and Walker’s grounded presence gives a nice contrast to Simpkins’ wild energy. BrittneyLoveSmith is lovely as someone self-actualizing before the audience’s eyes, while Roque and Rodriguez bumble through adolesence in a way that any viewer will wincingly remember.
Davis’ casting also challenges who gets to have their say in an apocalyptic story. Efran’s pronouncements about the need for a dining room table and a broom down in the shelter become especially fragile when presented by somebody who would not have had the power to make command decisions in the 1960s, simply due to gender dynamics. Walker also admirably presents the quiet archetype of a solid man, and it is through her open performance that we question the danger and suppression behind masculine strength. Both couples are played by women, performatively queering annihilation, a concept that Davis mentions in the program. Roque and Rodriguez’s characters admit to one another that they do not fit with the sexual norms or gender norms of their time. Their attempt to perform what’s expected of a young teen boy and a young teen girl grants an ironic and explosive end to the play.
Unfortunately, Kreimendahl’s script loses most of its momentum once the families retreat underground. The playwright has a lot to say about society when the neighbors are an active part of going to work every day and hosting barbecues on the weekends. But once those routines fade away, the drive for each character to confront their happy facades likewise disappears. The second act in the bomb shelter provides many revelations; the cramped space allows the families to confront one another about squashed-down emotions. But the conflict that arises does not feel organic, and the overall questioning of community and boundaries — so vital in the first act — falls by the wayside, as the children take center stage in a way that confuses the author’s message, rather than completing it.
William Bowles’ set design, with its blue grass, and its background painting of a pancake, prepares the audience to see the artificiality of the characters’ lives, even before they retreat to their tomato red bunker. Rachel K. Levy’s lights turn the pancake into a neon sun, clocking the daylight hours slipping away, and threatening irradiation with a green tinge at the set borders. Jeffrey Levin’s cheerful sound design pulls from absurd 1960s commercial advertisements, setting the proper tone at intermission. Melissa Ng’s costumes present a lived-in reality for each character, but the bright colors suggest change on the horizon.
While the script may not create the full narrative of a new day on the horizon, this production looks and sounds optimistic about our collective future. As boundaries blur and change, Davis wants the audience to know that we can have a good time putting the old world to bed, just as we are creating the new.
DIE RATING: d10 — “Worth Going To”
TEN WORD SUMMARY: Annihilation is upon us; it is queer and hilariously energetic.
Show: “We’re Gonna Be Okay”
Company: American Theater Company
Venue: American Theater Company (1909 W Byron St)