The thing about the cold war was that it was like that monster under the bed, except it was real. You didn’t ever actually see it, but it was always there. It was scary, and there wasn’t anything you could do about it. And if it were ever unleashed it would be the end of everything as we know it.
For me the cold war, as a mythic cycle, starts with “Panic In The Year Zero” and ends with “Red Dawn.” So from about 1962 to 1984. And of course in between those years there were endless portrayals of nuclear apocalypses in novels, TV (Twilight Zone, Outer Limits etc.) and movies (“Dr. Strangelove” being the favorite I suppose. There was also the famous “Daisy” commercial, courtesy of LBJ.)
Dystopian fantasies abounded during the cold war. And you didn’t even need a nuclear holocaust — ordinary things like birds could suffice (“The Birds“.)
It’s a wonder how anyone got any sleep. But they did, and in the mid-1980s it seemed like things improved, and then the whole idea of WWIII just seemed to evaporate.
Well, not so much. It’s back. B Street Theater’s production of Basil Kreimendahl’s “We’re Gonna Be OK” revisits the era of nuclear war, bomb shelters, and the end of civilization as we know it. Or knew it — because it seems so far away, and somehow what’s on the stage isn’t really us. But it was.
The play stars Dana Brooke (“Mag”), Jason Kuykendall (“Sul”), Stephanie Altholz (“Deanna”), Elisabeth Nunziato (“Leena”), Dave Pierini (“Efran”), and Doug Harris (“Jake”).
The cast is superb, the stage design was huge fun, lighting and sound were spot on (no pun intended.)
The story concerns two families living side-by-side in townhouses. One family is a bit younger, the other a bit older. Both families have teenage children. Efran (older) wants to build a bomb shelter for the two families, and he needs Sul (younger) to do the labor and build the thing.
Pierini plays Efran as a friendly, overly chatty, somewhat overbearing nice guy, and Kuykendall plays Sul as a somewhat subdued, thoughtful and resolute nice guy.
Brooke plays Mag as sincere, demure, sensible, while Nunziato plays Leena as intelligent, forthright, and capable. The teenagers Deanna (Altholz) and Jake (Harris) are portrayed as younger versions of the adults but with an adolescent sensibility that creates conflict and sexual tension.
These actors (with the exception of Harris) have all worked on the same stage for a long time, they are sensitive to each other, their timing is excellent, and nobody missed a beat.
To visualize what the playwright did here, just think of those 1950s family shows, like “Father Knows Best” or “Ozzie and Harriet“, add a portion of Edward Albee and a dash of Eugene O’Neill. In other words, expose all the eccentricities, the neurosis, the self-absorption that comes with material success, and there you have it.
But these are nice people, right? Absolutely. Which is (I think) the very point the playwright is making. We’re all thin-skinned, and all is takes is a little prick here and there and we bleed.
Once the bomb shelter is built, driven by Efran’s constant fear and loathing of cavemen and cultural decay, they must enter it and explore the possibilities of survival.
Efran’s pathological fear of cavemen, played for laughs, drives all the other characters to react to his manic bullying, also played for laughs. In the meantime the teenagers do what teenagers do, which is explore procreation.
Now right about when you get to T minus 30 seconds (“T” being the end of the play) one might ask haven’t we seen all this before? And yes that’s true, but it is funny to see Ozzie and Harriet coming apart the the seams — but what’s next? Where can you go with this play?
Ambiguous ending, that’s where.
So here’s the thing: 1950 culture, and the people therein, seem so far away from “now” that it’s almost like watching Tartuffe. A 17th century farce, harmless, let’s laugh and go home. Of course there are some moral lessons (or maybe moral lesions) in there, but it doesn’t feel very dangerous. So yes 1950 might as well be 1660 to most people, it’s that far away.
Or not. Because the lesson of all plays seems to be that people are eternally people. Efran’s nearly tangible fear is that warm and fuzzy will only get you so far. All that neighborliness is just for show. Once we rip the facade off Sul and Efran and Leena and Mag they are like snarling animals, fearful and territorial. And the teenagers aren’t, not quite, but they will be, once their parents stop feeding them. Or at least in Efran’s mind. The play never gets quite that far.
Does that bother you? That we’re always that close to savagery? Not me, because I’ve seen “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” and I’ve internalized it and I’m good to go.
So what, you ask? What’s the problem? Here’s what bothered me: I’m not the type of guy who will survive the apocalypse. I think food comes from the grocery store, and if the store is closed, I’ll starve. I don’t like being reminded of that. (Virginia Woolf notwithstanding.)
But give me a second here and I’ll put on my big boy pants.
OK. I’m OK. Everything’s fine.
Anyway, by using an ambiguous ending the playwright forces the audience to confront the question of “what happened” and face our own fear of the caveperson.
And once that question is asked the play serves as a contemporary reflection of the angst that many people in today’s world suffer during a loss of culture. What happens when all the trust-signals, all the social artifacts that placate us and steer us away from destruction are no longer in place? Even the perception that there might be a loss of culture can drive people to extremes.
No humans or animals were harmed during production, and the theater is free of radiation. At least for now.
“We’re Gonna Be Okay” by Basil Kreimendahl is onstage August 7, 2018 September 9, 2018