What does it mean to be an American?
American Theater Company’s mission statement asks the audience to consider their definition of “American,” and with every new installment in their season, the company invites audiences to think deeper and widen their perspective.
This Chicago premiere of We’re Gonna Be Okay not only appropriately responds to the mission, but invites the audience to consider what might happen when two families are forced into the confines of a bomb shelter, and must together find their own definition of “American civilization” in the face of total destruction.
American Theater Company presents We’re Gonna Be Okay
Written by Basil Kreimendahl and directed by American Theater Company Artistic Director Will Davis, We’re Gonna Be Okay follows two American middle-class, next-door neighbor families in the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis. The families get along fine, but when Efran (Kelli Simpkins) tells Sul (Penelope Walker) that what the families truly need is a shared bomb shelter underneath their properties to prepare for a nuclear war, everything is put into question.
Kreimendahl’s fast-paced and witty script explores what could happen when two couples and their teenage kids are forced into the tight confines of a bomb shelter. Does Efran have what it takes to maintain his power? How will the teenage children, Jake (Avi Roque) and Deanna (Saraí Rodriguez) get along? Will Leena (Adithi Chandrashekar) and Mag (BrittanyLove Smith) find that the women of the house should feel more empowered? Will there be other survivors? One thing that does become clear – when there is no escape, all truths must eventually rise to the surface. As the characters debate what will happen if they are the only ones to outlive nuclear war, Kreimendahl and Davis turn the concept of an average American family on its head.
This is a play poking fun at the concept of the average “American Family,” and helmed by Davis, the artistic team creatively brings that theme to life.
Scenic Deisgner William Boles, in collaboration with Lighting Designer Rachel K. Levy, fills the stage with neon colors from the very beginning. When the lights go out, the backdrop of Boles’ set illuminates – flashing neon yellow and red, with the outline of a stack of pancakes in the middle that switches from yellow to blue to green. The lights come up on a set that abstractly represents the neighboring homes of Efran and Sol. Rather than green grass, Boles utilizes a blue carpeting, with lawn chairs and neon colored grills. The approach suggests that not everything is as normal as it might seem, and helps prepare the audience for the wild, hilarious story that is about to ensue.
Costume Designer Melissa Ng further adds to the comedy, particularly in the second act. While the first act takes place on the neighboring porches of Efran and Sol, the second half of the play finds itself below ground in the bomb shelter, and Ng outfits the ensemble in pajamas that perfectly compliment the characters. While the eccentric Efron rocks a full set of plaid pajamas, Sol finds himself in a long, flannel robe and striped pants. Mag in floral pajamas, and Leena in a nightgown with a pink robe. The costumes subtly heighten the humor as the characters better get to know each other in the tight quarters, attempting to maintain any level of privacy and comfort.
The Perfect Cast
Davis’ ensemble of six shines, and delivers the fast-paced humor with spot-on comedic timing. It is clear that Davis worked with the actors to help shape their chemistry, as well as create nice compliments to each other.
The dynamics between the two couples are immediately set up at the top of the play, which aids in the payoff later when everything seems to fall apart. Simpkins’ Efran is hysterically larger than life in every way, which ups the comedy when the audience realizes the down-to-earth and calm nature of Walker’s Sol. The two could not be more different, but must learn to lead their families towards survival.
Leena and Mag each carry larger arcs of change in the story as they become more empowered through their friendship, and the relationship they build throughout is lovely. Chandrashekar’s Leena loves to have fun, while Smith’s Mag is a little quieter and afraid to come out of her shell. A particularly strong moment between the two is in the second scene when Deanna plays a song on her guitar – Leena is ready to dance while Mag just wants to watch. When Leena is finally able to drag Mag on to her feet, the Opening Night audience cheered, and it is no surprise. Smith and Chandrashekar create an honest friendship on stage that is impossible not to love.
As the two kids in a play about a nuclear apocalypse, Rodriguez and Roque carry important roles – much as Jake explains to Deanna early-on. If the world ends when they are in the bomb shelter, it will fall to the two of them to repopulate the world. The relationship between the two is amusing, and similar to the parents, Rodriguez’s darker, quiet nature provides an enjoyable contrast to Roque’s portrayal of a popular, self-conscious teenager. However, rather than providing the audience with a typical love story, Kreimendahl does something a little different. While this reviewer does not want to give away the ending, the playwright utilizes these characters in a way that feeds into this idea of “the new American family,” and Roque and Rodriguez rise to the challenge.
Dark wit, creative staging, and a fantastic cast make We’re Gonna Be Okay the perfect way to spend an evening.
Note: This is now added to the Picture this Post round up of BEST PLAYS IN CHICAGO, where it will remain until the end of the run. Click here to read – Top Picks for Theater in Chicago NOW – Chicago Plays PICTURE THIS POST Loves.
Playing through March 4, 2018
Thursdays at 8:00pm
Fridays at 8:00pm
Saturdays at 2:00pm and 8:00pm
Sundays at 2:00pm
Run Time: 2 hours, with intermission.
About the Author:
Lauren Katz is a freelance director and dramaturge, and new to the Chicago Theatre Scene. She recently moved from Washington DC, where she worked with Mosaic Theater Company of DC in Company Management, as well as directed around town with various theaters.
Click here to read more Picture this Post stories by Lauren Katz.