Photo of Elena Porter and Jake Tkaczyk by Marc J Chalifoux Photography
The play I saw last weekend, Small Mouth Sounds, was like an exercise in telling a story on stage after removing almost all of the spoken words. All the other parts of how a story is supported on stage, the costumes, the props, the actions and stage business, the set, the lighting and sound effects … they were enough. I watched various characters arrive at a retreat centre, and I could tell what they were like and how the retreat was going to work for them. One arrived late and on her phone, one slipped his flipflops gracefully into the shoe rack at the side and sank into a meditation pose that was in everyone else’s way, one wore a Tilley hat with chinstrap and an MEC catalogue full of outdoor clothing … I was anticipating all the ways these people might get on each other’s nerves over the weekend, and I was kind of right.
The current production in the Shadow Theatre season, Lungs by Duncan Macmillan, could be the opposite exercise. It’s as if the playwright, and the director John Hudson, and the designer Elise Jason, all sat down and said, what if we gave them great words, but almost nothing else – a big bare stage, no props, one simple costume each, no sound cues, near-imperceptible lighting shifts – and launched them into the narrative of two people in the middle of a conversation they’ve never had before. “A baby?” , Elena Porter’s character responds incredulously to a question Jake Tkaczyk’s character must have asked just before the lights came up. He’d been thinking about it for a while, and although she’d assumed it would happen sometime in her future, she hadn’t thought of the future being now. So they talk. And they avoid talking. And they talk some more.
Is it the right time for us? Is it okay for us to want a child when the planet is already overpopulated? The couple jumps between their personal anxieties “I want to still read books and do things” “I don’t want to be one of those fathers who never notices his kids unless they’re winning.” “What if I don’t bond with it?” and their bigger-picture worries about the state of the environment. They reassure each other they are good people who bicycle, recycle, and buy coffee from local independent shops “even when it tastes like dirt” – but here they are, trying to create another person anyway. In some ways, the script is specific to the 2019 flavour of those big-picture anxieties – partly about climate change and partly about doing the culturally-agreed right things – but the motivations and worries would be familiar to people of previous generations as well. “This isn’t the best time, I take it, to be giving hostages to fortune?” as fictional character Lady Peter Wimsey (nee Harriet Vane) announces her pregnancy to Lord Peter in Thrones, Dominations in 1936.
Mostly, Porter’s character is the one whose worries are full of words, spilling over each other and contradicting each other, but Tkaczyk’s character (they don’t have names) also gets an anxiety monologue when he can’t sleep.
The script cuts brilliantly from the middle of one conversation to the important bit of the next one. We don’t see the characters having sex – we see them looking at each other realizing they both want to, and then we see them collapsed in bed afterwards appreciating it. Or, in one marvelous scene, we see them after the concept of conception has actually ruined the mood. Not in the more-commonly-portrayed way of people feeling required to perform on schedule, but she wants the act to be romantic and symbolic, and she is put off by what she calls his “porno face”.
And, true to my own perception of life, things seem to speed up as life goes on, until the important bits flash by with one poignant line each (and usually a “where’s the camera?”) It matters that the action starts in a near-contemporary time, because by skipping ahead to later in the characters’ lives, we also get disturbing hints of what the playwright is imagining for what the environment and the world might be like in the future by the time the characters get old. I don’t think I’ve seen this done before, much.
Lungs is playing at the Varscona Theatre until Sunday March 31st. Because the performers both joined the production on short notice, in the early performance I saw they were both carrying scripts – but it didn’t matter much. I didn’t find it distracting, and it didn’t seem to prevent them from connecting with the audience and with each other. I cried.