Theater review: Hyde Park Theatre’s ‘Lungs’ breathes life into an empty stage

(This review is by American-Statesman freelance arts critic Andrew J. Friedenthal)

A woman. A man. A bare stage. The end of the world. The end of their world.

These are the simple elements that come together to form Duncan Macmillian’s “Lungs”  a hilarious and heartbreaking text that explores complex and complicated issues.

Hyde Park Theatre’s new production of the show (running through Oct. 22) is one of the most raw, intimate theatrical experiences I’ve ever encountered.

lungs

Liz Beckham and Michael Joplin star in “Lung.” Photo by Brett Brookshire.

With two performers who are both on stage for the entire length of the 80-minute show, “Lungs”relies on talented actors for its potency. Fortunately, in Liz Beckham (the unnamed woman labeled “W” in the text) and Michael Joplin (“M”), Hyde Park Theater has found a cast that can carry the weight of the tragic-comic play.

Joplin, as the often-hapless M, is funny, charming, dense, naïve, and supportive, as the text demands. His extensive improv experience shines through here, allowing him to not just shine comedically, but also to visibly listen and respond to his acting partner in a meaningful way that helps to define their relationship.

Beckham, as the smart, neurotic, guilt-ridden, vulnerable, iron-willed W, gives a tour-de-force performance. The script demands she hits somewhat higher highs and lower lows than Joplin, and she never hesitates to reach for those extremes of emotion in a genuine, supremely moving way.

Both performances are intensely highlighted by director Lily Wolff’s staging, which places the actors directly in the midst of the audience, who surround them in the round, with the playing space divided between what is traditionally the stage and the audience. This puts the actors in the laps of the audience—almost literally at times—and lets us see the intense inner lives of their characters in addition to the often dance-like physical interactions they have with one another.

Natalie George’s sensitive lighting design becomes almost a third player in “Lungs” playing off of the characters’ emotional lives rather than trying to create a representation of the locales that the text indicates. Wolffs’ staging does the same thing, focusing on emotion over realism, which remarkably makes these individuals more real than a naturalist, kitchen-sink drama ever could.

I’ve hesitated to discuss the plot of “Lungs” too much because I don’t want to risk giving away the dramatic turns of its storyline. That’s not to say that the plot is filled with shocks—indeed, one of the strengths of the story is how inevitable it all feels as it gathers momentum—but rather that a description of the plot doesn’t do justice to the moving way in which it is revealed through the characters’ relationship to one another.

Ultimately, “Lungs” is a play about a relationship, and about relationships, generally, as expressed through the ultra-specific love story of these two individuals (whose lack of names, the only specificity missing, feels intentionally ironic by the play’s end), and through the dynamic of the actors on stage.

A remarkable play with a dynamic production and astonishing performances, “Lungs” at Hyde Park Theater is not to be missed.

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