“Shipwreck” is a big play—big on ideas, big in its exploration of people’s expectations and view of themselves versus reality, hellbent on exploring the divide in America with the election of Donald Trump as the president, and big on exploring just how far people are really willing to invest in society versus the tribal instinct to protect what we already have. Oh, and racism is tossed into the mix as well, as well as the red/blue state divide and its inherent stereotypes.
‘Shipwreck’ is a play worth seeing. Go for the outrage and chaos which mirror our current national discourse. Stay for the unspoken questions.
One thing I can say about this play is that at nearly three hours, it encapsulates the chaos and continual drama of the Trump presidency and the impotence in Congress; it’s a blizzard of outrage and brittleness and hurt and fear.
Which works—seven friends meet at an upstate farmhouse that is being restored for a sort of reunion and get blindsided by a blizzard; which they had been told was coming, but didn’t believe. That structure certainly encapsulates the feeling that many liberals in America have about the current political situation.
And this group is woefully unprepared for the weather; the hosts have almost no groceries (not even coffee, which struck me as just cruel) and when Richard (James Whalen) gets back, he hasn’t brought any groceries with him; he didn’t know if the grocery list his wife Jools (Anna Ishida) had given him was a regular list or the one for the weekend. That sort of encapsulates the unpreparedness of the country to have as disruptive influence as Trump in office. Nobody was prepared.
Over the course of the evening, Jim (Jeff Biehl) and his wife Teresa (Alyssa Keegan), Allie (Jennifer Dundas), Louis (Jon Hudson Odom) and Andrew (Tom Story) will bicker and pull back from the precipices many times, as well as eat a cobbled-together dinner of ketchup soup with hot dogs and pickle juice. Then the electricity goes out (but not as permanently as it did with Washburn’s earlier play, “Mr. Burns”) and the confessions intensify and the feelings of disappointment and betrayal swell.
Whalen plays two roles—Richard and the original owner of the farm. He and his wife had adopted a Kenyan orphan, Mark (a lovely, conflicted and endearing Mikeah Ernest Jennings) and raised him on the farm. As white parents of an African orphan, they seemed remarkably sanguine about the realities of racism in America; you could say they were very insulated. He insists they were not racists, even as he talks about not adopting a black child from America because that would be problematic. He and his wife are proud of the fact that they adopted this orphan from Kenya and gave him access to running water and education and the American way of life. Yet he obviously loves his son wholeheartedly as he relates the moment when the toddler first called him daddy. In a cast of stand-out performances, his dual roles are genuinely moving.
During the second act, we meet a Donald Trump who is channeling his inner Mephistopheles as he invites a timid James Comey to dinner, woos him, then fires him. The dinner scene, with the rest of the cast in Egyptian ibis costumes (with really splendid noses) and a very tall, threatening guardian-of-the- tomb type of mythological enforcer is set in a demonic cavern of candles and a gold-topped chair. It’s a jarring bit of theatre, seemingly beating the audience over the head with the symbolism. Although it does ask the question—can the devil be beaten? Sort of makes one long for Charlie Daniels to fiddle the devil into submission.
Odom, as Louis, drops a bombshell—he’s a liberal as are all these folks, yet he confesses that he voted for Trump. His partner Andrew (a funny and sparkling Tom Story) is shocked; and hurt. When asked why, he admits that he believed that America needed a wake-up call; he also admits that if he had voted in a red state, he wouldn’t have done it. Unfortunately, the consequences of that impulse—to his stated beliefs, to his partner and his friends—is never really explored.
Dundas takes her character to dizzying heights of brittleness and outrage. But she finds a humility in her character as she admits that she could have done more than sign petitions and make phone calls, but she’s so busy, and she trails off. She is also the one to ask the million dollar question—what can we do when faced with such dire consequences, and what are we willing to do.
This cast is uniformly excellent with the material. The characters themselves have a certain stock liberalness to them, which makes Louis, a rich African-American liberal lawyer, who voted for Trump for reasons he can barely articular, all the more intriguing. And Whalen especially finds the humanity and confusion in his farmer character.
Some of the juxtapositions are jarring. The action will just stop and the farmer and his son, usually separately, face the audience and speak of their lives and how they see the country. Then Mark walks offstage or stands to the side silently watching, and Whalen swiftly transforms into Richard.
Written by Anne Washburn and directed by Saheem Ali, “Shipwreck” premiered at the Almeida Theatre in London in February 2019. The direction is smooth and the action never lags. And there are times when the words are sheer poetry, particularly as they relate to the surrounding countryside; you can see the big pond/small lake and the meadows and woods and sky and hear the crunch of new, fresh-packed snow.
Scenic designer Arnulfo Maldonado has done sterling work on the stage design; for the first act and most of the second, the farmhouse is detailed by old brick walls, wooden beams and tall windows; it looks slightly shabby and rustic and like it would cost a fortune. Then the set transforms into the devil’s cave and you wonder how they managed to hide it. It’s very impressive.
Costume designer Dede Ayite creates very upper-middle-class au courant costumes for the friends, but it’s the Egyptian costumes that really dazzle.
I don’t think this play is meant to have answers. It asks the questions that so confounded so many on the day after the 2016 election. It also asks us to imagine this national divide continuing and what would anyone of us commit to. It asks if humans can commit to anything greater than the immediate tribe. It asks if we can actually face reality and if our beliefs are real or are we just playing. It’s asking if we can be brave.
And no playwright can answer that.
“Shipwreck” is a play worth seeing. Go for the outrage and chaos which mirror our current national discourse. Stay for the unspoken questions.
Advisory: Adult language.
Running Time: Two hours and 45 minutes with a 15-minute intermission.
“Shipwreck, A History Play About 2017” runs through March 8, 2020, at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, Washington, DC. For more information, please click here.