Producer Sonia Friedman returns to the post-pandemic West End not with a safe revival but with a succession of brief runs for three socially-distanced world premieres by young writers, and it is an impressive act of faith in the future. But while Friedman looks to the future of theater, young U.S. playwright Amy Berryman looks further still. She’s making her U.K. debut with “Walden,” the three-actor season opener that has its eye on the future of the planet and beyond.
Although the date is left unclear, we’re promptly made aware of the fact that we’re in a none-too-distant future, courtesy of a news bulletin that Stella (a not so much febrile as high-wired Gemma Arterton) listens to on her phone. We discover the world is struggling with the disasters of climate change: A tsunami in Sri Lanka has taken a million lives; thousands of refugees have poured into India, which has already been torn asunder by a war over potable water; and a massive U.S. space project is celebrating the safe return of the Moon Habitat team.
The last of these has included Stella’s brilliant twin sister Cassie (scrupulous, driven Lydia Wilson), a NASA botanist, who has been exploring the possibilities of life beyond Earth. This is less exceptional than it might seem since not only was their father an astronaut, but Cassie was too. Stella worked for NASA as an architect, and it was she who developed the program that Cassie worked on.
Stella has abruptly quit her past life, switching “sides” to align herself with her partner Bryan (Fehinti Balgun, bringing warmth to a faintly stolid role) who is an Earth Advocate. The two of them are part of a mass movement dedicated to simple, low-tech, self-sufficient lives, consistent with saving this planet rather than looking beyond it to the moon and Mars.
Stella and Bryan are following in footsteps of Thoreau, living in a homey cabin in the woods, beautifully suggested by designer Rae Smith beneath Azusa Ono’s atmospheric light and Emma Laxton’s subtle sound design. With Cassie’s arrival after a year in space, director Ian Rickson’s typically patient production lifts up a notch with the clear expectation that there will be less revelry, more rivalry. And so it proves with Stella and Cassie locking horns.
Like David Auburn’s “Proof,” Charlotte Jones’ “Humble Boy” and Lucy Kirkwood’s first-rate “Mosquitoes,” this is another play seeking to illuminate important scientific questions via personal ones and vice versa. Not only are Stella and Cassie twins, they’re placed in multiple oppositional positions — their shared past versus their separated present, Earth versus other planets, belief in the human scale versus the space program, whether or not to have children — so it’s abundantly clear that Berryman is setting up warring dualities.
Unfortunately, the contrivances feel so deliberate that the effect is distancing, especially since Berryman is rarely content to allow her ideas and allusions to resonate on their own. She even has Stella explain to Bryan the relevance of their names (Stella, as in constellation; Cassie, as in Cassiopeia).
Instead of allowing the audience to engage via subtext, she ensures everything is argued out. The result is a progression of scenes in which her characters know themselves so much that the writing is too on the nose for true empathy. And although the twins experience considerable highs and lows in the course of their high-stakes reunion, it’s hard to be moved when there’s more debate than drama.
Berryman began writing her play about the future of the environment five years ago. If her neat conceptual balance is only intermittently successful, it’s encouraging to find a new writer happy to grapple with big ideas. The characters may talk about rather than embody agency, but there’s no denying that their chosen subject has welcome urgency.
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