Theater Review: Lungs Is a Rewarding Drama for a Theatrically Underserved Millennial Generation | Arts

Theater Review: Lungs Is a Rewarding Drama for a Theatrically Underserved Millennial Generation


Jonathan King and Michelle Murray Wells in Lungs - PHOTO COURTESY OF DARYL RAY CARLILES PHOTOGRAPHY
  • photo courtesy of Daryl Ray Carliles Photography
  • Jonathan King and Michelle Murray Wells in Lungs
★★★★ 1/2
Through Sept. 25
Sonorous Road Theatre, Raleigh

You scarcely need a critic to note the conspicuous strengths of Sonorous Road Theatre’s rewarding production of Lungs. Two eyes, two ears, and a waking mind should do the trick. Artistic director Michelle Murray Wells and a previously underutilized Jonathan King are clearly among the strongest members of an emerging generation of young regional actors. Under Tony Lea’s discerning direction, in a stripped-down show with little in the way of technical filigree, both expertly pursue the comedy and pathos in the hairpin curves of Duncan Macmillan’s script.

It’s obvious why Wells pushed hard to secure this regional premiere for Sonorous Road’s second season. The rising British playwright’s 2013 text clearly expresses two voices—and a series of concerns—from the millennial generation, which remains criminally underrepresented onstage. Last Friday, I watched the twenty- and early-thirty-somethings in the house lean in as the unnamed couple onstage awkwardly negotiated a significant moment of change in their long-term relationship.

Protip: Such moments should not be attempted while standing in a checkout line at Ikea. Absurdly, the man believes it’s somehow progressive for him to say he thinks they should have a baby before his partner does. When he does, her ensuing meltdown shows how badly he’s miscalculated one of her life goals.

The moment also triggers the first in a series of telling verbal switchbacks as both characters talk their way through contradictory emotions. After her boyfriend blindsides her with the news above, the woman flatly states, “I’m not freaked out, I’m just surprised,” mere moments before comically admitting, “I’m completely freaked out.” By evening’s end, both will state politically correct positions on various social, ecological, and interpersonal issues and then immediately start walking them back as they express their deeper ambivalence.

We watch, breathlessly at times, as these complex characters emotionally bruise each other and themselves as they overthink almost everything about their relationship, including the creation of a new life. They try to reassure themselves that they’re good people and then cruelly debate how anyone can actually be good in such a dysfunctional culture on a suffering planet.

In this finely calibrated production, we see both the intimacy and the distance between two awkward people who love and care for each other. Millennials will hardly be the only ones to look on with fascination and occasional dread as the work fast-forwards through the life cycle of these characters and Macmillan asks what the future holds, for them and for us.

There is a nagging flaw, however: a gender-based emotional imbalance in Macmillan’s script. When the thoughts, feelings and struggles of the woman on stage are so thoroughly explored over a series of deep and vivid monologues, she can’t be placed among the legion of underwritten female characters. But why must she get stuck with all of the neuroses while the comparatively underwritten male character plays the stable, stoic half of their team?

Luckily, King’s performance and Lea’s direction compensate for this dynamic—the man onstage is fully dimensional, and he blossoms in moments when he discloses his love and his fears for the future. But is Macmillan making the point that sexism remains alive and well in the millennial generation, or has he simply fallen back on reductive gender stereotypes in an otherwise compelling work?

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