Climate change is front and center in ‘Lungs’

Drama Department production grapples with an uncertain future

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"Lungs" runs at the Helms Theatre Oct. 10-12. The show features three different casts and deals with the realities of climate change for one couple. 

Courtesy Martyn Kyle

With global temperatures on the rise and the effects of climate change already taking hold in many different parts of the world, there seems to be an urgent responsibility across generations to take action against the continuation of these issues. This is a difficult reality to grasp, however, and the complications and ethical questions of how to live in a sustainable way is often hard to reconcile with the accustomed standard of living. 

“‘Lungs,” the most recent production from the University’s Drama Department, attempts to tackle these questions and more through the lens of a young couple trying to decide whether or not they are ready — or if it is even morally responsible — to have a child. The show, which was performed on an entirely bare stage by a cast of two, moves across time and space as they attempt to work through the anxieties of being young and unsure, while simultaneously bearing witness to the gradual collapse of the earth as they know it. Climate change is the unseen third character alongside the cast of two, although the play is about much more than just that particular issue. There are questions of love and loss, and a feeling of grief for themselves, for each other, and for the world, which permeates every bit of dialogue and segment of blocking. 

The Friday production itself was modest in its presentation — as specified by the playwright, the show takes place with no indication of place or time other than the context of the dialogue. There was no miming, no costume changes, no set or sound effects. This understated structure was incredibly effective in the compelling nature of the piece — it shifted all of the focus from the external environment to the internal aspect of the dialogue and physicality from the actors. This especially highlighted the depth of the text — its complexities and staggering relatability. The piece, which is both fast paced and urgent as well as thoughtful and quiet, flows with almost stammering truthfulness. The dialogue feels theatrical, certainly, but also touches upon some shared understanding of fear and uncertainty. The cast, though small, brings this nuanced, dynamic piece to life with care and enthusiasm, playing with many different levels of emotion and drawing in the small, closely seated audience with delicate captivation. 

The vision of director Dave Dalton, an assistant professor in the Department of Drama, catalyzed this effect, as he worked with student assistant directors Jakob Cansler, a third-year in the College, and Savannah Maive, a fourth-year in the College, to produce the show. ‘Lungs’ notably features three different casts, each of which performs on different nights of the run. For Dalton, the show’s unique technical constraints were part of its appeal. 

“I was interested in the challenges of a two person show without costume changes or sets,” Dalton said. The unique nature of this piece certainly created challenges for the production team, as each of the three casts received less overall time with the primary director. 

The solution to this came in the form of the assistant directors, who worked with each cast to elaborate and solidify Dalton’s vision when he was not directly working with them. This system of division and collaboration helped each cast to think creatively about their own interpretation of the text, as well as emphasizing the complexity of the piece in the fact that each cast could bring their own ideas and character angles to the table without compromising the underlying meaning of the play. 

Third-year College student Charles Hurt and Madeline Walker, a fourth-year in the College — one of the three casts — gave compelling performances in their opening night Friday, particularly in their very realistic portrayal of the couple. Walker’s impressive expressive range and intensity was well-balanced with Hurt’s more relaxed ease and rhythm — both of which formed a nuanced and intimate chemistry that never broke throughout the 80-minute runtime. The strength of these actors built the foundation for the entire show. When added to the subtle but beautiful use of lights placed along the far wall to only vaguely indicate time, it culminated in an innovative performance which spoke to the value and flexibility of the theater and brought forward a unique artistic standpoint to the issue of climate change. 

Lungs will be performed in the Helms Theatre through Oct. 12. 

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