Some lines from Robert Frost’s 1914 “Home Burial” came to me Friday night while watching off the WALL’s production of Duncan McMillan’s Lungs: “You that dug with your own hand – how could you? – his little grave?” Dramatic works about failed pregnancies are at least one hundred years old. Some of the more famous works on this matter include Juno, Alfie, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and Cider House Rules. Lungs revisits much of this same territory without adding much new in terms of commentary or approach to the subject matter.
Lungs also implements some unique staging: there are what look like two small putting greens elevated at different levels with a long stretch of lights running up the center of the stage. There are no props and no changes in the scenery in the play even though the actors are meant to be in many different locations. The play also starts (and concludes) with very unusual interpretive dancing. Ten minutes into the play I was wondering if this Richard Wilson nostalgic staging was going to be so distracting that the entire play would be inaccessible, only to discovered that Richard Wilson in fact did stage design during a London version of Lungs.
I also have no idea why the play is called Lungs except that the work is about a couple worried about what “carbon footprint” bringing a child into the world would create. I wish that there’d maybe been the sound of lungs at some point in the background of the play or something more than an inference that provided an idea to the play’s title.
It might sound like I’m about to lambast Lungs. I’m not. This play is a very emotionally effective play despite having a few noticeable shortcomings and this effectiveness is nothing short of a testament of McMillan’s sensitive and natural dialogue and some top notch acting.
The play features two characters, a boyfriend (Alec Silberblatt) and his girlfriend (Sarah Silk). I’ve been following Sarah Silk’s career since I used to watch her prodigious acting as a high schooler at Shady Side Academy. Last I’d heard, Silk was studying acting at the legendary Actors Center Conservatory (now the Actors Center) and I am so very glad that Silk is back in Pittsburgh. Her range has grown immeasurably as an actress and I wouldn’t be lying if I said that Sarah Silk is almost too good at the neurotic, eventually heartbroken female lead in Lungs. Silk’s ability to show sorrow mixed with longing and love with an occasionally dose of humor keeps the audience hanging on for more through the 100 minute, no intermission Lungs. Silberblatt gives an emotional and praiseworthy performance as well, but Lungs asks more out of its female performer and Silk responds by giving us our very own modern Madam Bovary.
The play’s plot is fairly simple, and I will do my best to give readers who might be interested in attending the show an idea of the play’s story without any spoilers. The couple contemplates having a child with special care taken to the environmental damage that can be created by bringing a human being into the world. Unfortunately, the couple encounters some hardships, which comprises the main drama of the play. There were some belly laughs during the beginning due to how the characters argue with each other, but I couldn’t find much humor in the play and I think that laughter were mostly the result of the audience growing accustomed to the performance and its character. The play carries the audience from light laughter, though, to intellectual weight to real emotional drama and tension. Does the play follow a similar arch to many other dramatic works? Yes, it does. But somehow, feeling like I’ve seen the whole thing before does not slow the evening down because the dialogue is honest and the characters (by which I mean actors) are so tremendously brave in their performances. I should also mention that Lungs uses an interesting technique throughout the play to fast forward through what might be conceived the boring moments of the couple’s story. Sometimes this technique works. Sometimes it doesn’t. The novelty and the way in which this narrative technique highlights certain elements of the storytelling in Lungs.
Lungs is not for younger viewers. Lungs is also not for those who might find the play’s subject matter a bitter overwrought. Sure, Lungs may not be as blindingly memorable as theater classics like After the Fall or Long Day’s Journey but it is an incredibly moving play. If you measure the success of a play by the amount of thoughts and emotions the work can create in an audience then don’t miss Lungs because the play is an unquestionable success.
Special thanks to off the WALL for complimentary press tickets. Lungs runs at Carnegie Stage through Saturday December 17th. For tickets and more information click here.