Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
We are all grateful that those bombs never dropped during the Cuban Missile Crisis or at any other time. But what if they had? Or, what if they had not but we thought they had? In Nimbus Theatre's wonderful new play, A Life of Days, written by Liz Neerland in collaboration with the play's cast and crew, a survivalist father is certain the bombs will drop that during the Cuban Missile Crisis. He takes his wife and six-year-old son Nikon to an undisclosed location deep in the wilderness where he believes they will be safe from nuclear fall-out and the savagery that will follow, causing the demise of all civilization. Shortly after they settle in, baby Vira is born. Two years later her mother dies in childbirth, along with the baby.
The play begins in 2017 with David and Callie, two surveyors on foot, mapping 2,000 uncharted acres recently absorbed into the U.S. National Park System. We are not told where they are, but we see that it is cold, rugged, heavily wooded terrain. David twists his ankle and as the two seek out a safe spot to rest they are startled to find a womanVira, now in her mid-fifties living alone under subsistence conditions, a wood-framed hut for a home, her clothes ragged.
Vira is cautious. She was raised to believe that her familyof which she is now the lone survivorwere the only people left after the great catastrophe. She admits that at times she did wonder if others had survived, but the risks of venturing to find out were too great. Callie and David gradually earn Vira's trust and learn her story, while she eventually comes to accept the truth that there was no nuclear war and that civilization still exists, though greatly changed from her father's descriptions of it and from her one window into what the world used to look like, the 1962 annual supplement to the Book of Knowledge encyclopedia.
A Life of Days moves very calmly, slowly, deliberately. Its pacing reflectsand honorsthe painstaking attention to detail and monotonous routine that has kept Vira alive for decades since her beloved brother's death. After their father died while Vira was on the brink of young womanhood, it had been just she and Nikon. Nikon invoked the strict discipline needed to survive, but also bathed his sister in the constant warmth of his love. That was long ago, and Vira has acclimated to a life of utterly total solitude. Her life is now composed of each given day, with its bounty of rigorous chores and challenges. She has no sense of a future in which anything will be different, nor even the possibility of such a future.
As Callie and David come to know Vira, they face a huge moral dilemma: should they report her presence to the authorities, who may then completely disrupt the only life she knows, or should they allow her to continue her hermetic existence for as long as she can avoid detection. Given the Park Service's new authority over the land, it seems inevitable that she will be found again, and perhaps by others who will not treat her with the same respect as do David and Callie. If they act now, they may be able to soften the blow about to descend upon her. On the other hand, shouldn't it be her decision?
Beyond this moral issue, A Life of Days illustrates what life reduced to core, essential functions, looks like, and speculates on the meaning of such a life, continuing day after day with no progeny who will carry on, the ability to do no more than replace what is consumed in living. What are Vira's joys? Or does joy fall into the category of non-essential goods? And if so, what keeps her going?
By comparison, David and Callie's lives are far removed from a sense that simply to survive is purpose enough for each day. Vira tells them that to stay they must help, and has them braiding plant fibers into rope. When David remarks that he never made rope before, Vira is aghast: "Well, how do you get rope?" He answers, as if it should be obvious "At the store." Vira, dumbfounded exclaims "There are stores?," as if he had said there are unicorns.
Two fine actors play Vira. Cate Jackson is Vira as a young woman, seen in flashbacks with Nikon, while Delta Rae Giordano is middle-aged Vira, confronted with the reality that she has lived her life based on a falsehoodand yet, for her, that life is the only possible truth. Both actors are inspiring in the complete conviction with which they flesh out Vira as a full person with a rich inner life in spite of her isolation. Though they never interact, there is a consistency in their performances that makes us believe they are one person.
Nicholas Nelson is stirring as Nikon, conveying both strength and tenderness in his capacity to survive and to protect his younger sister. Nikon seems to have washed himself of any trace of the civilized life he left behind as a six-year old, but in a scene where he is pulled back into that time, Nelson imbeds in Nikon such a well of loss and sadness as to cause the audience to draw in its collective breath.
Gregory Yang and Brid Henry, as David and Callie, have less dramatic roles to play, but both actors fill the bill extremely well, displaying the ease of living they take for granteda pop-up tent that assembles in just minutes, a cell phone that connects them to their boss untold miles away, a stove they can toss into their backpackalong with a mixture of awe at Vira's ability to survive and an almost voyeuristic curiosity about her life.
Director Josh Cragun moves the narrative smoothly back and forth between the present and past and maintains a sense throughout that everything on stage is possible, in spite of the enormous odds against a person alone surviving so many years in the cold without medical help or access to food beyond what she could grow in a short growing season, gather, trap or hunt. We may know that this tale is a stretch, but it delivers so much truth that it allows us to embrace and believe it.
The physical production is outstanding. Brian Hesser's set creates the environment of an epic within the small confines of the Crane Theater stage. Vira's hut is depicted in fine detail, with a ridge above on which Callie and David set up their tent, and two tiers of rises behind, representing the steep landscape, all surrounded in woods. Just beautiful! Rubble and Ash has assigned straight-from-REI outdoor apparel to David and Callie, but Vira and Nikon's clothes are patched together from animal skins, sinew, and remnants of cloth, with Vira's clothing far more tattered in her older incarnation. We can almost figure out by looking closely how two people without a sewing machine or store-bought threads or notions created clothing from what they had on hand. Emmet Kowler's evocative lighting and the uncredited sound design that provides authentic winds and birdsongs further ennoble this production.
The play concludes with a scene so astonishingly moving, I was brought to tears. A Life of Days is one of those works you may enter not knowing what to expect, and leave with astonishment at how much a small, scrappy, insanely talented crew and cast can create together. It is frequently slow, which may not be everyone's liking, but it that is part of what it has to tell us. Life is not something to rush through, but to attend to with the greatest care, because every deed matters. Add to that, A Life of Days is a play that matters.
A Life of Days, presented by Nimbus Theatre, runs through November 24, 2019, at the Crane Theater, 2303 Kennedy Street N.E., Minneapolis MN. Tickets: $12.00 - !5.00; Pay what you can performance on Monday, November 18. For more information and tickets, visit nimbustheatre.com or call 612-548-1379.