By Karen Topham, American Theatre Critics Association
The best science fiction is really about us all, who we are today, what we might become. Such is the case with Lauren Ferebee’s Goods, now premiering online in an Artemisia Theatre production. This powerful two-hander brings us into the cockpit of a space junk hauler as its two-woman crew gets ready to go on their 20th Anniversary mission together to take out mankind’s trash—really out, like to the asteroid belt or a landfill on the moon.
The task facing Marla (Julia Proudfoot) and Sam (Shariba Rivers) is the same mundane one they have been doing together now for two decades: haul the excessive garbage of the human race where it won’t be a mess on anyone’s lawn (assuming that, in this future time, anyone even has lawns). Over the countless trips during this time, they’ve settled into comfortable routines with each other on the cramped ship, where they often sleep sitting down in the cockpit, and they each have one inviolable rule: Marla insists that they never talk politics while Sam demands quiet time once in a while for meditation. Easy peasy.
On this occasion, however, two unusual things occur. First, they are offered a large amount of extra money to make an unscheduled journey to the asteroid belt for which they have to file non-disclosure agreements. Second, while the cargo is loaded, they accidentally do the one thing they are never supposed to do: they look into the hold and see what kind of junk they are carrying that is worth so much. The shocking revelation leads both of them to re-evaluate their core beliefs about right and wrong and just what kind of people they are.
Director E. Faye Butler has the unenviable job of keeping a physically static play tense and exciting. The actors are pretty much always just sitting next to each other and talking. Marla plays with a gold coin she has co-opted from a past haul in the hopes that it will bring them luck, and she makes tea from a too-delicately shaped tea kettle that apparently sits just in front of her. Sam listens to a static-laden radio or eats M&Ms or tries to read one of Marla’s pirate-themed romances (in an effort to understand her friend better) when she isn’t meditating or conversing with her partner. Butler and her cast do an excellent job of portraying the absolutely repetitive boredom of this job despite its exotic setting, setting up a massive contrast when things suddenly go south in a huge way.
Ferebee’s dialogue touches on many current hot-button issues from climate change to undocumented aliens to (of course) the excessive vastness of humanity’s waste and what to do with it all. This world of 2100 is not yet as overrun with detritus as it is in, say, WALL-E, but that film’s dark future seems easy enough to imagine from here. Sam is originally from the now-submerged New Orleans. Marla’s son works for Border Patrol, which is still facing hordes of refugees trying to get into the country. Of course, they attempt to scrupulously avoid discussing this stuff so they don’t violate Marla’s rule, but some of it comes out anyway.
Proudfoot, with her expressive Angelica Huston face, is the somewhat older crew member just trying to make it five more years so she can retire and be with her family. Rivers’ younger (though, hey, they have been in this gig together for twenty years, so not that much younger), more emotionally volatile Sam also dreams of eventually retiring (perhaps ironically to a house in the middle of nowhere). Neither character has ever even come close to trying to handle the moral quandary they find themselves in, which they both quickly understand will permanently define and mark them. Both actresses turn in stellar performances.
Ferebee does her best to avoid preachiness in a play that is essentially a very loud warning about where we could be heading socially, politically, and ecologically, and she mostly succeeds. Goods feels more like a story about two friends facing an impossible situation than a polemic on the darkness of the human race, thank goodness, but the fact remains that the situation derives directly from the huge issues at play, inviting audience members to wail like the sensitive Sam at the absurdity and inhumanity of it all.
Find “Goods” at artemisiatheatre.org. The show lasts 90 minutes. (It actually begins about fourteen minutes into the video.)