Breath of fresh air
London playwright’s 'Lungs' breathes new life into local theater scene
The Rhode Island theater scene will soon get a breath of fresh air. The Wilbury Group, known for breaking the bounds of conventional theater and premiering pieces here you’d be lucky to see elsewhere, is bringing “Lungs” to the Ocean State next.
Written by London-based writer and director Duncan Macmillan, the two-person play centers on the issues of marriage and children. But it’s not that straight forward. A sometimes gut-wrenching, sometimes laugh-out-loud funny play, “Lungs” has no distinct setting, no scene transitions and a modern, colloquial style of dialogue. The result is something that, at least on paper, is refreshing and, at its core, ultra realistic.
Macmillan said the first draft of the play came quickly; it was the rewrites and revisions that took years. Macmillan took time between dress and technical rehearsals for a London production of “Lungs” for an email correspondence to answer questions about the work.
“I was working on another play, a huge, sprawling epic that I’m still working on,” Macmillan explained. “I got stuck with this other play and wanted to write something quickly that I could give to two good actors and put it on in a room somewhere. It was written so quickly there was a lot in the play that surprised me when I read the first draft back.”
The idea that the play could be performed anywhere is also a central element in the style of the script. Macmillan said he imagined the play to be small in terms of the staging and the style, calling it “an intimate, domestic drama.”
“But it bulged at the seams with existential angst and issues on a global scale,” he said.
The play tells of a man and woman – neither is named throughout the play – that begin to discuss having a child. What results is the unraveling of their relationship and the exposure of a lot of major uncertainties just under the surface.
Macmillan said “Lungs” isn’t autobiographical, although he did draw from some past personal emotional and philosophical struggles.
“Writing the play was probably an attempt to articulate and reconcile some of the anxieties I was experiencing as I found myself approaching 30, with a fiancée, a mortgage and a cat,” he said. “Perhaps every generation has felt this way, but it does seem like a particularly complicated time to be a grownup. Political uprisings, riots, ideological polarization, financial crises, overpopulation, erratic weather…”
And “Lungs” touches on all of those things in some way. It’s a modern-day “coming-of-age” drama for those legally adult for years but have yet to become adults in their own minds.
What is being a significant member of society? Is it your career, your relationships, or your children? Macmillan said it was the gravity of the subject that was one of the reasons to strip the play of sets and costumes.
“For ‘Lungs’ … the conversation is what matters. That’s the play – this epic conversation that eventually comes to span a lifetime,” he said. “To have realistically rendered sets, costume changes and props would emphasize the wrong thing.”
Macmillan said it’s the words, the decisions, the streams-of-conscious and silences that matter.
“When you have these on-going conversations with people you love, it doesn’t really matter where you are,” he said. “You could be stuck in a traffic jam or lying in the bath together, it’s the same conversation. You just dip in and out of it. That’s how it feels when you’re inside it, so that’s how it should feel when we watch it.”
In addition to getting the audience to focus solely on the story and not frills, Macmillan said breaking from the convention of sets and costumes is an exercise in suspension of disbelief, the theater world’s expression for a theatergoer’s faith in a story’s logic and truth undistracted by attention to costume and sets and faith in the audience’s ability to imagine.
“For one thing, it’s fun,” said Macmillan. “It’s a little audacious perhaps. It’s a kind of theatre magic. It’s far more empowering for the audience to be invited to suspend their disbelief and imagine the world of the play. It means we can move through time and space quickly and tell their story in a more immediate way, unencumbered by the usual stage mechanics.”
The play has only the two, unnamed characters and Macmillan said it’s a “high-wire act” for the actors, who have nothing to distract the audience from their performances.
In the Wilbury Group production, Jed Hancock-Brainerd and Rachel Delude, two respected local actors with numerous credits, will play the roles. Veteran actor Steve Kidd (a company member at the Gamm Theater in Pawtucket) will direct, although Macmillan said the actors are really in the driver’s seat.
“They control the pace, the tone, the journey through the play,” said Macmillan. “It moves fast, there’s no chance to catch your breath, there’s nowhere for the actors to hide. It requires extraordinary performances, physical and emotional stamina, an amazing memory and the ability to listen and respond in the moment. In this way it’s inevitably a different show each night. It’s a living, breathing thing.”
Before making its way to Providence, “Lungs” premiered at Washington, D.C.’s Studio Theater in 2011 and enjoyed its New England premiere at Barrington Stage in Great Barrington, Mass., this spring. Macmillan recently helped open a production at Paines Plough, the national theater venue of new plays in London, on Sept. 19.
“It’s gaining momentum, I think,” he said. “It’s very nice to have several productions of the play and feel that it’s resonating with people.”
Macmillan said it’s particularly gratifying after the play had spent so much time gathering dust on the desks of theatre directors for a long time. He said he’d nearly given up on it and then suddenly two companies – one in Washington, D.C. and one in Great Britain – decided to produce it at the same time. Both productions have been revived.
The Providence production will open with a preview “pay-what-you-can” performance Oct. 14 and will have the official opening on Oct. 18. According to Macmillan, the play is also being produced in several other cities in the U.S. “Lungs” was recently nominated for the Charles MacArthur Award for Outstanding Play or Musical at the Helen Hayes-Theatre Washington Awards.
Macmillan is hesitant to say why his play is “important.” He worries that he’d come off sounding self-important and stuffy.
“It can be quite stifling to set out to write something ‘important,’” he said. “I’m not attempting to preach. I don’t have any answers. Generally, I write about things that trouble me, questions I don’t see anyone else asking. If you write sincerely enough, I think there will be others who will recognize themselves in the play and be grateful for it…But that all sounds very dry.”
For Macmillan, “Lungs” is simply a good reason to get out of the house and visit the theater.
“It’s funny. It asks some big questions that we’re all wrestling with about our place in the world, but if it works on that level, it’s because we recognize conversations we’ve had, we identify with the characters and we fluctuate between liking them a lot and wanting to grab them by the shoulders and shake them.” Another of Macmillan’s plays, “Monster,” has won two awards, and the playwright has a slew of other works on his résumé, too. One of them, “Bellybutton,” will be produced at the Mapstead Theatre in London next year. As for what’s on the horizon, Macmillan said to keep a lookout.
“I’m writing a couple of new plays, so watch this space,” he said.
The Wilbury Group’s “Lungs” will play from Oct. 18 to Oct. 27 at the Butcher Block Mill, 25 Eagle St., Providence. Tickets are $15-$20 and available online at BrownPaperTickets.com. For more information, email Info@TheWilburyGroup.com or visit www.TheWilburyGroup.com.