The Earth Room - Fresh Ink Theatre
The Earth Room – Fresh Ink Theatre
Review by James Wilkinson
The Earth Room is presented by Fresh Ink Theatre. Written by Marge Buckley. Directed by Rebecca Bradshaw. Scenic Design by Lindsay Fuori. Lighting Design by Abigail Wang. Costume Design by Chelsea Kerl. Prop Design by Victoria Hermann. Sound Design by Elizabeth Cahill. Fight Choreography by Omar Robinson.
Somewhere along the way, we all seem to have made the collective decision that in the future, everything will be chrome and minimalist, (the average interior design on an episode of an HGTV show suggests that we’re well on our way to making this new reality). Part of me wants to assign responsibility to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey for implanting the aesthetic in our heads, but really that film just extrapolates from earlier sci-fi depictions of the future. In any case, the design choice now exists as a kind of short hand for the audience, one that Fresh Ink Theatre’s new production, The Earth Room traffics in. It’s clear that we’re not in Kansas anymore (or anywhere else on Earth for that matter), when we step into the room with Lindsay Fuori’s set. In more ways than one, there’s a neatness to the room. There are tight, crisp edges to the (minimal) furniture. Geometric patterns line the walls, cocooning us in a grey shell. Conspicuously absent from the room are any sort of personal effects (as though the owner went the full-Kondo and decided that nothing they owned sparked joy). It’s a sci-fi world that we’re rocketing into, one with problems that both are and are not like those of us back on home.
The play by Marge Buckley sets up an incredibly rich sci-fi world with some really exciting possibilities and sets an average American (or is it Martian?) family right in the center. It’s many years in the future, Mars has been colonized and the wreckage that was once Earth now has a population of a few hundred million. Parents George and Jitterbug (Scot Colford and Mal Malme), live on Mars with their two children, Ari (Grace Trapnell), and teenager Malia (Kiara Caridad Stewart). Also present is House (Jane Reagan), the artificial intelligence system that runs their living unit. The family has all of the typical problems, (waring siblings, parental disagreements, teenage rebellion, a spouse’s mid-life crisis), but between the dialogue, we also get glimpses of the world around them and the troubles brewing on the edges. There’s a growing separatist movement to cut off humanitarian aide to Earth so that Mars can focus on its own economy. The younger generations are feeling the crunch of an economy that isn’t offering much in the way of opportunity or upward mobility. Each member of the family struggles to find a place for themselves both within the family and in the world.
Writers have long used science fiction settings to examine contemporary society (think The Twilight Zone) and that’s partly what’s happening in The Earth Room. When you strip away all of the sci-fi elements, you’re essentially left with a family drama. Thankfully, one of the areas where the production succeeds is in making me believe that the actors are all a part of a cohesive family unit. I suspect that this partly has to do with how long Fresh Ink workshops their productions with their actors. They’re given the time to really develop those relationships. When Ari and Malia bicker or George and Jitterbug have a heart to heart, I believed that the characters have history together. Outside of the immediate family, Jane Reagan provides a fantastic performance as House. She’s able to pull off a very subtle and chipper blankness that you’d expect if your Amazon Alexa were to become cognizant. And she nails a comic monologue in act two where House attempts to tell a joke. Additionally, the production has a really lovely design to it. Besides Fuori’s set, Abigail Wang’s lighting provides an explosion of color that lets the set glow and Elizabeth Cahill clearly has had a ball creating the sound of the world of tomorrow.
What prevents me from embracing the production, however, is that it never really feels like the show decides what it wants to do. It lays out a number of intriguing thematic possibilities, but it never sticks with one for very long. There’s some incredible world-building in the script. In addition to all of the issues plaguing society, it’s mentioned that human life has been extended to over 150 years. What sort of existential dread does living such a long life dredge up? It’s mentioned that humans are kept in a state of constant cleanliness in the Martian colony. How could living in such a state affect human health? The title, The Earth Room, refers to a virtual reality set-up in the house that allows the user to experience any location back on Earth and whose usage might become addictive for the user. What could that do to a person in the long run?
Any one of these ideas (or any of the other unmentioned ones) could potentially provide the material for a really interesting and thought-provoking play (hell, half of those scenarios practically read as lost Philip K. Dick novels), but The Earth Room never really allows any of these ideas to develop. It sort of picks one up, acknowledges it, and then sets it down in favor of picking up a new one. The virtual reality addiction element of the Earth Room (that is, the room within the play), takes up so much focus in Act One only to be dropped in Act Two. There’s a moment in Act Two when House potentially becomes sentient, to an extreme degree, that I thought was so interesting it made me sit up in my seat. It was disappointing then, to find out that there’s never any true pay off.
The end result of all of this mixing and matching of ideas is a play that just left me feeling lost. It’s not that I was confused about what was happening plot-wise, it’s that I wasn’t exactly sure what in the story that I was supposed to be responding to. I didn’t have an emotional through-line to guide me in the story. As the play goes into its home stretch and the characters have their final confrontations, the actions don’t really seem to link up with everything that’s come before. Without that cohesion, it’s hard for The Earth Room to feel like more than the sum of its parts.
The Earth Room is presented by Fresh Ink Theatre at Boston Playwrights’ Theatre May 3-18, 2019.
For tickets and more information, visit their website: www.freshinktheatre.org