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ATC’s Strong “We’re Gonna Be Okay” Subverts Gender Roles

★★★

Review by Karen Topham; photos by Michael Brosilow

From the first step into the large American Theatre Company space to see their new play, We’re Gonna Be Okay, the theatregoer is immersed in what the playwright, Basil Kreimendahl, calls “an idea of 1962.” In order to get to the theatre proper, patrons have to walk past an early 60s family room complete with television and a family (the play’s actors). The verisimilitude of such a scene sets up a contrast with the somewhat heightened reality of the play to follow, a send-up of the Cold War paranoia and the naïve innocence that led people to build backyard fallout shelters in the hope of escaping alive if “the big one” dropped. The play follows two neighbor families who decide to build their own shelter to save money and end up descending into it when the Cuban Missile Crisis starts, as the play focuses itself into a study of relationships.

One of the central “relationships” that Kreimendahl wishes to examine is the one between men and women, and director Will Davis’s production takes that into an alternative reality as well, casting two women as the husbands in a clear effort to subvert the very notion of the kind of excessive masculinity that is so much a standard part of the era. Kelli Simpkins plays Efran, the neighbor who, by sheer will, makes the shelter come to life, as a fast-talking, manic person whose ideas are never fully formed but who demands that they be heard. Across their shared lawn, Penelope Walker’s Sul is more down to earth, a quieter type who doesn’t necessarily believe in the need for the shelter but finds himself cajoled into helping to build it by Efran’s forceful manner. The casting of women in these roles serves to add a deeper layer onto the exploration of toxic 1960s manhood that Efran represents. Watching the two interact with their wives (Aditya Chandrashekar as Efran’s buoyant wife Leena and BrittanyLove Smith as the more laid-back Mag, who has recently lost a baby and needs something to believe in), somehow says more about gender roles than it might have with more traditional casting, an

The relationship between the teenage children of the two families punches it home. Both Jake (Avi Roque) and Deanna (Sarai Rodriguez) are gay, so the notion that they might be needed to “repopulate the world” isn’t exactly endearing to either one. Jake’s gay teen, so deeply closeted that he may not be aware of his orientation himself, contrasts with Deanna’s more casual lesbian to create quite a bit of antagonism and confusion. Her gaydar has uncovered Jake’s truth, and it’s clear that all she wants is for him to face it. His focus, on the other hand, is on that Noah’s Ark need to bring new humans into the world, and his clumsy, half-assed efforts to woo her form a good amount of the play’s humor. Roque and Rodriguez have a lot of fun with their characters’ halting, absurd relationship. Rodriguez offers a new take on the sullen teen girl as she becomes infatuated with Jake’s mother (far more hip than her own). For his part, Roque plays boy in denial with aplomb, pulling memories from his own transgender high school days. Both young actors are wonderful in their respective roles.

But it is the adults who are the play’s central concerns. The men’s relationship, driven by the “bullying” of Efran, contrasts greatly with the more gentle relationship that builds between the wives, a relationship centering on crafts and “spirit animals,” both of which Leanna teaches Mag about. Chandrashekar is brilliant as a woman who seeks freedoms in modern dance and making art as a kind of balm for a heart that knows it is wasting potential: Leanna’s biology degree is just sitting in her brain accomplishing nothing, and her husband is very against even the idea that she should try to do something with it. A powerful symbolic action mid play serves to show her feelings about being confined by his expectations (and endears her even more to Deanna’s needy teen). Chandrashekar plays this unfulfilled woman without any malice or angst; her state is a fact of her life and she knows it, which explains all of the other freedoms she takes advantage of. Smith, on the other hand, plays Mag as almost catatonic with anxiety and fear, setting up a stark contrast with her neighbor and another with herself later in the play after a revelation sets her free.

As the women continue to build a new relationship based on mutual understanding and compassion, the men’s relationship becomes more and more one-sided. Simpkins’s Efran is a brilliant creation. The tall, willowy actress, sporting short,  brylcreemed gray hair, is all limbs as her arms flail about to make points, taking over the entire stage as effortlessly as Efran takes over the neighborhood. Walker has a different job to do: Sul is easily the less demonstrative of the two, but he too is a stellar example of Kennedy era masculinity. A couple of great scenes with Mag solidify the notion that even the quieter men are forging lives based on a paradigm we should be happy to have overcome. Both actors create memorable characters, and Davis’s notion of casting women as men does precisely what he wants it to do.

All of this plays out on William Boles’ delightful, creative set, which shows its flexibility in an intermission set change. Rachel K. Levy’s lighting adds to the scene as well: playful in Act One, she gets dark and serious in Act Two, which takes place entirely in the shelter when the neighbors are convinced that the country is under attack. Jeffrey Levin’s sound design, especially notable during the Kennedy speech and the old-time commercials, is understated but perfect. And Davis keeps the play crackling along, its fast pace highlighting the pace at which these characters’ world is shifting and changing.

In all, We’re Gonna Be Okay is a very unusual, very funny, provocative play that seems exactly right for this moment in history. Whether its titular message is true or not, the ATC has done justice here to an inventive and clever piece of theatre, a show whose ambitions are much larger than the simple story it weaves of neighbors in a world in turmoil. It’s well worth seeing.

We’re Gonna Be Okay plays now through Mar 4 at American Theatre Company. For tickets ($38), see their website.

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