‘Lungs’: She’s having a baby

Third Rail's two-hander about anxiety, parenthood, and the state of the world updates the conversation on love and life

Anxiety is nothing new for us mortals, but the anxieties of our own Age of Anxiety can seem unprecedented. Third Rail Rep has birthed to the stage a prescient look into 21st century parenthood and its particular anxieties with its production of Duncan Macmillan’s Lungs, now playing at CoHo Theatre.

Playwright Macmillan hangs with the in-yer-face theater crowd of the U.K. His work shares the painful honesty of the genre, although he handles the audience with a gentler approach than his peers. He’ll shock you, but only because he’s given a line to a character that reveals some fragment of inner dialogue you’ve experienced at one time or another: the kind of inner conversation that if spoken, would lead to both catharsis and shame.

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Pierce and Miles: modern problems. Photo: Owen Carey

Anxieties? Take your pick. In the few days before Third Rail’s Lungs opened, Portland’s air hung with what felt like beads of red mercury, magnifying the sun and sweeping up fine particles of dust. The cityscape seemed to be a postcard from the dystopian future. Bone-dry streets summoned up the smell of dirt and caked urine and a museum of litter; they showed off the city’s haves and have nots with struggling homeless camps dotting the underpasses. Local news reported that Portland’s air quality index was worse than Beijing’s, and the governor declares a state of emergency.

Saturday night we’re driving over the Fremont Bridge, wedged into the tensing shoulder-to-shoulder traffic that is now everyday for Portlanders. We’ve left an hour before showtime, and it’s just enough. I get a sinking feeling in my gut as we puzzle through the chaos of cars. We can’t see the West Hills, and on the right a large plume of smoke gathers and pipes into the atmosphere from the direction of St. Johns. Another fire bellows on the Willamette River Superfund site. The river has skim paths between the liquid and the pollution top. It’s like the puddles you jumped in with your Wellies as a kid, marveling at the rainbow hues dancing between the breaks you make, not knowing the colorful patterns come from car oil.

We go into CoHo’s warm foyer, where the box office is always welcoming. I get a little sad, thinking of the first time I reviewed a play here. It was Rebecca Lingafelter’s one-person show Grounded. As the usher takes my ticket and hands me a program he notices: “This play is very relevant for you.” I nod and agree that the irony is not lost on me.

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There’s always a little spike of excitement when you enter a theater and take in for the first time how the stage is set. Lungs is glowing with shapes that could be amniotic sacks, stork bags, or nuclear-dusted plastic. The glow reminds me of a children’s recipe at Halloween, where you break glow-sticks in half and add the liquid to bubble-blowing soap. The simple life hack makes the bubbles glow in the dark. The wall of liquid vessels reflects off a chalkboard green platform, cutting half-diamonds here and there.

We find our seats and I’m grateful; I’ve got plenty of leg room to stretch out. I rifle through my bag to find my handy yellow notepad and begin reading the program. Lingafelter, who is Lungs’ director, writes that she is 30 weeks pregnant. I imagine her full and rounded with a high bump, so different from the muscled and tomboyish character she played in Grounded. The usual suspects are here: Krista Garver from Broadway World; Ronni Lacroute, patron to the theater world. I remember again that this could be my last theater review for a long time to come.

The evening before, my partner and I were up late grocery-shopping and confiding the annoyance that our lives had become pretty uneventful. Friday nights are about buying soy milk and vine-ripened tomatoes, not painting the town. I remind him that at least we’re not arguing and crying in the Cretan maze that is Ikea. He laughs and we reassure ourselves we’re ok with being middle-aged and boring on the surface. We’re ok with us and where we’re headed.

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… but then, there’s always THIS to consider … Photo: Owen Carey

Lights out on the CoHo stage for a brief minute. The opening act begins with a couple in a tense conversation in, yes, Ikea. The woman, played by Cristi Miles, has the look of an ultra-comfortable-in-her-skin granola woman in the making. But in this dizzying volley of words her appearance conflicts with her anxiety-inducing uncertainty. Her partner, played by Darius Pierce, has the understated but expensive chic of an urban lifer. He must be wearing $200 jeans. In a gender-role reversal, which I have yet to confirm among my associates, he’s asking her to have a baby with him.

In what are some of the most restricting stage directions you can imagine, Macmillan requests no props, no miming of place or time, and no costume changes. Director and master of the stage Peter Brooks would approve. The audience is left with the only elements necessary for a good play: the actors and the words.

The pace of the play is frenetic – just like life, like modern life, like social life on the internet, when the impossible demands for our attention and time get caught in the crosshairs of a life-changing moment. In that space a new kind of tension is born. It’s a chicken-or-egg question of which begets anxiety: the anxiety itself, or the agents that induce anxiety.

Stripped bare, down to its elements, Lungs is two people asking if they are good people because all they have in this world, to speak of, is each other. It’s also a marathon of lines for the two actors to remember, and it’s satisfying to see Miles and Pierce take the challenge and win at the sprinting dialogue.

Miles paces back and forth, wringing sweat from her hands like it’s a fresh coat of superglue that just won’t unstick. She’ll have to wait a few weeks for it to peel off. Her bond with Pierce’s character is old, stubborn like a tree uprooting your home plumbing, and its showing not just its longevity but also its ability to disrupt. Pierce’s man seems an unlikely candidate, confident with his nebbishy persona. He’s the man for Miles, but just not feeling man enough to be man enough.

The old troubles set in when disapproving in-laws state their case against. Money, in the fright form of financial insecurity, maps out the couple’s radar. The middle-aged come-to-Jesus moment hits you like a thousand-ton load of bricks: the time when you won’t be able to conceive a child is fast approaching. And with it comes that scarier than scary specter of change.

The 21st century change that the couple are facing isn’t just the age-old struggle of changing endless nappies, lack of any naps, and a beautiful small creature upending any semblance of life b.c. (before child). It also brings a whole new palette of dangerous concerns: no breathable air, fighting over water, solar radiation, flooding, more.

Miles’s character is working toward a PhD on climate change and eco-criticism. Pierce’s character is a hopeful musician turned white-collar office worker. They shop locally, buy seasonally, run for charity, and of course, recycle. They know the commercialized concern for environmental collapse has a baseline of hypocrisy, but they’re trying as individuals. That’s all the power they feel they have to combat a world caving in.

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I’m really not sure I can deal with this thing. Do you know what I mean? Photo: Owen Carey

I tense up. My hands are starting to tingle with numbness, and I shift in my seat, making room for a nice leg stretch-out. I’m nervous for the couple. I’m hoping “they” win out.

One of the most mundane and odd ceremonies you can participate in is running to the grocery store to buy a set of plastic sticks, trying to hunker down and relax enough to pee on a stick and of course, wait for the precious two pink bars. Miles and Pierce nail this moment with precision. It’s awkward, funny, and cathedral-awesome to take in. Has it been two minutes? Let’s wait two extra minutes. Let’s pee on a few brands of plastic sticks to make sure. Let’s pee right in the morning, when the hCG hormones are packed into the yellow fluid. It’s all so human, so much a part of modern love, and ringing with authenticity under Lingafelter’s direction.

The pregnancy test comes back positive.

From here the couple’s course is not under their control, and they begin to realize, maybe it never was. They are deeply in love with this little speck, who in ridiculous internet speak is the size of a lentil. As Miles’s character notes: “Why do they use food to describe everything?” At eight weeks your child is the size of a garlic clove. The whole clove? Which kind of garlic? The outer, smaller buds on an Italian varietal? Did these sites ever read Jonathan Swift? Because, just really.

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Maybe. Just maybe. It’s going to work out. Photo: Owen Carey

In my theater seat I’m thinking of my partner, who has a PhD and developed a course on eco-criticism with the intent of making his students cry. I’m looking at the stage and seeing us. Miles’s character describes a baby’s carbon footprint as “10 thousand tons of co2 would be giving birth to the Eiffel Tower.”

I’m remembering our conversations about how to face the guilt of bringing a baby into the world when it could be ending. I think of the name Octavia and when back in March we considered that name because we both love Octavia Butler and her dystopian speculative fiction novels about surviving in a collapsing world. I’m grateful my partner has made my career as a writer possible. I’m wondering how in the world I can write this review with objectivity.

My little son is kicking. He loves hearing people talk. He kicks more as the couple hash out all their fears and hopes. I’m thinking about taking him to his first play in a few years. Miles and Pierce’s couple keep echoing back to me with meta-levels of the same, and in the very end, they settle what we settled for: Love.

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Third Rail Repertory’s Lungs continues through Aug. 26 at CoHo Theatre. Ticket and schedule information here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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