Often, there is a certain sameness to science fiction plays. If they are of the “exploring strange new worlds” variety, sets are usually sleek and silvery, with costumes that reflect that version of the future. If they are post-apocalyptic, sets are dark and dangerous, with a jury-rigged look to them, and costumes are made of whatever might reasonably be procured after “the end.” Lighting, sound, and overall mood go along with the theme. In neither version, though, would the word “cute” ever be appropriate…which instantly makes Zoe Kazan’s After the Blast, now being presented by Broken Nose Theatre, an unusual, if not singular, entry in this category of plays.
Zazan, who is probably known more for her film acting and for writing the screenplay for 2012’s Ruby Sparks, is also an accomplished playwright. And there is something about this 2017 play with its focus on mental health issues connected to being isolated for a long period of time that is pretty much perfect for our era, as director JD Caudill points out in their highly personal program note.
After the Blast takes place an unspecified number of decades after a nuclear holocaust, combined with climate change, has forced the survivors of the human race underground to live in a series of interconnected tunnels and tiny apartments that were apparently constructed for this purpose in every corner of the world. (This one happens to be near Great Falls, Montana, and it does have power and modern technology, eliminating one recurring trope of this kind of story.) It’s a stark, repetitive life, reflecting the fact that, as one character tells us, the purpose of this entire endeavor is to find a way to get back to the surface in some distant future generation. To this end, most of those recruited were scientists, engineers, and doctors…though those in charge were careful to bring in artistic types as well so that souls might be fueled as well as minds and bodies.
The play focuses on one of these, a former journalist named Anna, played by Kim Boler in what surely should be counted as one of the Jeff nominee’s finest performances. Forced to spend all of her days in her tiny living space while her husband Oliver (Ruben Carrazana) works endless hours trying to find a way to reverse or at least temper the devastation on the surface, Anna has slipped into a deep depression. This is not helped by her refusal to use the chip implanted in her brain to “sim,” or to experience a kind of three-dimensional mind-based journey to other places, facilitated by tech that has been created by the scientists underground that makes the journey seem and feel real. It is also not helped by the fact that she has been turned down four times in her quest to be permitted to have a baby because she has failed the government’s Mental Health Test. (Oliver points out the ways in which this is a vicious cycle, with each failure driving her deeper into herself and making the next one more inevitable.)
With only one chance for fertilization remaining, Oliver makes the decision to do whatever it takes to bring her out of her depression. He signs her up to “train” a helper bot, a small companion robot designed to make life easier and more pleasant for older people. Created by Jabberwocky Marionettes and maneuvered by Arielle Leverett, the small white bot slowly becomes insinuated into Anna’s life. At first, it is very stiff, communicating by means of blinking lights, but gradually, as she spends more time with it, she starts seeing its full potential. Piloted by Leverett, the bot (which Anna names Arthur) becomes more and more graceful every day, leaping around the apartment, having sophisticated conversations, and even dancing. (The two of them doing a choreographed routine while singing Four Non Blondes’ 90s hit “What’s Up?” is a total hoot.)
Boler’s gradual change from a broken, depressed, despondent Anna to a woman who sees her future opening in front of her is an amazing feat of acting, as is Leverett’s ability to breathe life into a metallic robot, and both actors’ complete immersion in their roles makes this odd relationshop completely believable. There were many times when, directed by the talented Caudill, their interactions elicited “aws” from an audience that was going into a state of glorious cuteness overload. Before the audience begins heading toward a diabetic coma, though, a hint of darkness arrives. There is something going on here that Anna (and we) don’t know, and it may potentially unravel all of what has happened.
There is a lot to love about After the Blast, from the puppetry to the direction to Boler’s powerful performance to the weird cubic lights hanging from the apartment’s ceiling. (I mean they make no sense at all in a post-apocalyptic dwelling—they certainly are not practical and minimalist like everything else we see—but they are fun and help with the moods of the play’s various beats.) I don’t know whether to credit scenic designer Therese Ritchie of lighting designer Cat Davis, so here’s a shout-out to both of them. Props designer AJ Morley’s futuristic green-lit transparent phones are wonderful as well. Carrazana’s thankless job as the overworked, frustrated, and frightened Oliver is also strong, as are the ensemble performances.
Still, there are a few things that did bother me. Chief among these is Anna’s defiant refusal to enhance her depressing existence with sims. (She even insists that Oliver shun them, though the chips are implanted in both of them.) She says that her stance is due to the unnatural nature of the sims—there is more than a whiff of 90s anti-videogame rhetoric, and she’s even called a Luddite at one point—but all of the evidence we see points to the fact that these mulitsensory images work brilliantly, and since she has had this chip all of her life, a life physically spent in a small apartment in a cave, I can’t fathom her stance here. Kazan seems to have done this just to create conflict where it wouldn’t ordinarily exist. (I will say, though, that is it consistent with Anna’s initial bias against helper bots.) Other things are minor but should have been caught, like Anna’s friend Carrie (played on this night by understudy Taylor B. Hill) exiting a scene through the main theatre door while holding a crying baby whose cries are clearly coming from somewhere else altogether.
Despite the few issues, After the Blast is a wonderful exploration both of depression and of how far someone can or should go to help a loved one going through it. As a sufferer of depression myself and the parent of depressed children, I know it is never easy to know what to do, how much intercession will be too much, or what sincerely-meant move or advice will trigger an unexpected emotional meltdown. Those of us who are always dealing with this, as Caudill points out, know how hard it is and that “we can only get better when we willingly participate in our own treatment.” Kazan’s choice to use a post-apocalyptic setting to explore such a powerful personal issue is a stark reminder that this kind of pain will always be there, and that human interaction is never as simple as programming a machine.
After the Blast is playing until June 11 at The Den Theatre. Tickets are available from Broken Nose Theatre.