Note: The pronouns of the characters were used for this review, they do not necessarily reflect the pronouns of the artists.
We’re Gonna Be Okay at American Theater Company by Basil Kreimendahl directed by Will Davis perfectly captures what it feels like to be living in the midst of a crisis. In our current political climate, no matter which side of the debate you find yourself on, there is an undeniable sense of panic as we try to hold on to a life that feels like it’s trying to run away from us. America, a land of unlimited possibility, and paralyzing fear. In Will Davis’ production, that fear is palpable, but it is also accompanied by laughter, love, and hope.
Kriemendahl’s play follows two families during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 panicking about an impending bomb threat that may never come. In keeping with the American Theatre Company tradition of letting no aspect of the space go unused, we see the interior of a home when we first walk into the theatre behind the set where the actors lounge, though the play takes place largely in their backyards. Though both families are multiracial, as I watched scenes play out between the fathers of the two families, Efran (Kelli Simpkins) and Sul (Penelope Walker) I could not help but think: this is why you don’t get trapped in a bunker with your crazy white neighbor. Efran cannot handle the loss of the status quo, and Sul is simply trying to adapt to less than ideal conditions. These attitudes echo cultural realities of our time. I have to point out that Efran’s freak outs are a work of art as Simpkins brings a dangerous and boisterous quality to the character.
Efran can’t deal with anything that he can’t control, and it emerges in seemingly well-meaning tangents that can quickly turn sinister. His wife Lena (Adithi Chandrashekar) is an equally energetic woman who is really into crafting, and shares her gift with Sul’s wife Mag, played by BrittneyLove Smith. Mag’s journey in this play is particularly rewarding, she goes from a shy woman who barely dares to macrame to a fierce horseback-riding badass. Lena grows as well when her life is upended from being satisfied with crafts to wanting to put her biology degree to use and empower her friend Mag to go after her dreams as well. The introspective Sul is a man who works with his hands, and is given a wonderful performance by Walker, who delivers a very touching short monologue in act 2.
Each family has a single child, Jake is Efran and Lena’s son played by Avi Roque and Mag and Sul’s daughter played by Saraí Rodriguez. Both children have a secret that allows them to grow close, and it is ultimately their love for each other that inspires us to keep living in a seemingly chaotic world. The two share a hilarious and empowering scene I refuse to spoil, but they encourage us to revel in our personal joy, no matter where we find it.
There is a seriously phallic mushroom cloud behind the entire first act, and smaller phallic missiles hanging above the stage in William Boles’ set design, which I interpreted as a metaphor for how patriarchal dick-swinging is keeping us in chaos, but I could certainly be projecting that. Boles’ set transitions at intermission into a bomb shelter, complete with canned food and a view aboveground in a wonderful trick of perspective. It is well worth your time to stay and watch the transformation. In the bomb shelter, the lighting designer’s skills are highlighted as we enter a world lit with lanterns and footlights, creating shadows and intimacy in the small space.
The sound design by Jeffrey Levin is unique, with an active soundscape that involves percussion and a ticking sound that is reminiscent of the midnight clock that determines how close we are to doomsday.The costuming by Melissa Ng sets us clearly in the time period yet these modern bodies look at home and comfortable in what they wear. Deanna’s overalls are a highlight of Ng’s design.
We’re Gonna Be Okay is an appropriate piece for our current moment, and a more hopeful follow up to the last piece Welcome to Jesus. Davis has set an incredibly high bar for himself at ATC, which can make this production feel not as shiny as Picnic or Welcome to Jesus, but it still has important lessons that should not be ignored. At times, the show can feel as if it’s not grounded which can be unsettling in a Chicago theatre scene baked in realism. This choice to elevate the play almost to the point of absurdity still makes sense as the characters in the plot are constantly losing emotional and physical ground. Overall the ensemble performances are genuine and charming so it’s easy to accept the play in the style it’s presented. The work Davis is doing to highlight gender performance and re-defining what is normative is continued here and executed flawlessly. Ultimately, We’re Gonna Be Okay is a daring look at how we confine ourselves through fear, and what we have to gain by stepping bravely into the future.
BIAS ALERT: I am a queer artist with a weakness for absurd theatre, magical realism, and symbolism.
Photos by Michael Brosilow
Mag – BrittneyLove Smith
Sul – Penelope Walker
Deanna – Saraí Rodriguez
Leena – Adithi Chandrashekar
Efran – Kelli Simpkins
Jake – Avi Roque
Director – Will Davis
Playwright – Basil Kreimendahl
Scenic Designer – William Boles
Lighting Designer – Rachel Levy
Costume Designer – Melissa Ng
Sound Designer Jeffrey Levin
Props Designer – Jamie Karas
Assistant Directors – Julia Rufo, Topher Leon, Yinzhou-Peter Chen