Imagining the post-apocalypse has brought about all sorts of thrilling stories: even scarier zombies than before; nightmarish disease creating unhinged panic; dark, Cormac McCarthy-esque landscapes lurking with the kinds of demons that spring up when civilization unravels. Ringing Out, the new original play by Josh Wagner, is also a post-apocalyptic exploration, but it’s a smarter take with an emphasis on carefully wrought characters.
In a bunker in the not-so-distant future, Rick, a survivalist who predicted the end of the world and prepared for it with a large stash of canned goods, gun and solar energy know-how, is now living a post-apocalyptic life with his wife, Kendra, and a young woman named Mandolin. The bunker set evokes a childhood fantasy of living underground Hobbit-style—there’s something cozy and romantic about the simple arrangement of seats on birch stumps, a phonograph, a pile of burlap sacks and a modest bookcase. But this play isn’t seduced by fantasy.
The opening scene immediately illustrates the kind of longterm sorrow that only humor can alleviate. Kendra (Ann Peacock) cheerfully lists off her pretend complaints and makes Rick (Howard Kingston) play along.
“The bank closes as soon as I get off work!” Kendra says.
“The vending machine at the office doesn’t take twenties,” says Rick.
“I drank all the flavor out of my slushie,” says Kendra.
It’s a morbid game, but a necessary remembrance of pre-apocalypse life and luxury.
A ladder goes to the above-ground world where no one is safe—at least, that’s how Rick sees it. And we soon learn that in a cage, Rick has captured a stranger (Ali Tabibnejad) who represents the scary outside world and the way in which it threatens bunker life.
Meanwhile, memories are also threatening to unravel what Rick is so carefully trying to maintain. Mandolin—too young for remembering much about pre-apocalypse life—suddenly recalls strange things: “inside trees” decorated in jewelry; giant rooms and snow and music. The memory of Christmas stands in contrast to the dysfunctional bunker where Mandolin’s pregnancy creates tension among the trio. That story alone creeps up as a sort of dread. “How is she pregnant?” you wonder, but then you know.
The acting in Ringing Out is fantastic—delivered by a four-person cast that would, with this script, be highly praised in any theater scene as easily as in Missoula. Kingston creates a complex character in Rick—his protective devotion is palpable and his temper spurred by fear creates real discomfort. Jennifer Fleming-Lovely as Mandolin gives us a young girl who rebels and loves despite her formative years spent in a bunker. And Tabibnejad plays the kind, brave stranger with wonderful restraint, capturing the way hope of a new life—a city with machines and people trying to live together—might be both liberating and an affront to bunker order. It’s Peacock’s Kendra, though, that makes this story so heartbreaking and beautiful. She’s a woman who has in some regards lost the husband she once knew. And Peacock has this incredible way of playing manic happiness with so much underlying sadness.
Ringing Out is tightly executed under the direction of Rebecca Schaffer. The story unfolds in a patient way. And it keeps its humor in dark moments. It’s a story about remembering Christmas and not in a trite way, but it’s mostly about a million other things. It’s about storytelling, for one thing. And loss. We might imagine zombies and such for the end of the world, but more harrowing is imagining our world without the things and people we once loved. One character laments not having a copy of The Hobbit or any Marquez books. But there are other things, too. Think of everything gone and the keen pain you’d feel in the absence.
Wagner always renders poignant lines, and this script is no exception. “The earth pushes all things toward the surface—even the dead” is one that reverberates long after it’s said.
Cues to this being a story of our time, like a “Jersey Shore” reference, keep it relevant and funny. And the fact that the only Christmas song present is The Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York” also gives it a refreshing edge. (If you love that song,you’ll love the entire tone of this play.)
This story isn’t one you’ve heard before, even if you recognize the themes. And it never gets too cerebral or philosophical. But by the end, you’ll realize that it’s still a story of us—you and I—the kind of people who listen to “Fairytale of New York” and do sometimes wonder, with real concern, what the future holds.
Ringing Out continues at The Crystal Theatre Tue., Jan 24, Wed., Jan. 25. and Thu., Jan. 26, at 7:30 PM nightly. $15.