A Couple Stares Down Climate Change and Love in 'Lungs' at Ensemble Theatre

This smart production, which begins with a fight at Ikea, will keep you on your toes

click to enlarge A Couple Stares Down Climate Change and Love in 'Lungs' at Ensemble Theatre
Lindsey Beckwith Photography

Verbal arguments between couples have been a mainstay of theatrical drama for eons. After all, who better to get snarly over sensitive topics with than someone who knows your weaknesses, your verbal gamesmanship tricks, and your tolerance for psychic pain.

In Lungs by Duncan Macmillan, now at Ensemble Theatre, a man and woman are in line at Ikea where she broaches the topic of whether they should have a child. Her main concern is the climate crisis and whether they would just be adding to the problem by creating another demanding, resource-gobbling carbon-based lifeform.

When Macmillan wrote this funny and insightful piece almost 15 years ago, he was clearly worried about climate change and how it might affect personal relationships. Good thing he wrote it when he did, because if he had waited till now—what with worldwide cataclysmic fires, floods and earthquakes dominating the news—he might have just decided to write about puppies and whether they're cuter than kittens. (They are, but that's a digression for a different review.)

Lungs goes on to amplify their argument over many years, as places and times shift. These transitions happen instantly, in the spaces between two words, and that serves to whip the story along. At times, it's like watching two water bugs play badminton in a whirlpool, but the two-person cast under the direction of Becca Moseley never loses their grip even as their characters lose theirs.

The woman (call her W) is played by Katie Simón Atkinson with superb attention to the details of W's quicksilver peeves, fears and downright terrors. Stopping and starting herself in her many solo diatribes, Atkinson sketches a loose-limbed, staccato image of a young woman tortured by her dual needs to procreate and her responsibility as a citizen of the world.

Responding to W is M, as portrayed by Robert Grant III. M is a more mellow person by nature, but he is given to episodes of glowering anger when he feels wronged. Through it all, Grant and Atkinson fashion their characters into believable people, which helps the audience accept the minimal "theatrical" terrain of the production (ie. a bare stage, no costume changes, only two light cues).

The struggle at hand, as serious as it is, is often punctuated by laughter as the playwright employs his pointed wit to lighten the mood or pierce a pretension when one arises. Everything seems to happen quickly, even the sex scenes fly past with just a sigh, a smile and the wipe of a brow.

But oddly, the 85-minute play never feels rushed as both the actors are given ample time to explore the intimate and global issues that are raised. M and W argue and then try to make up, but those efforts are like plugging holes in a boat with wads of paper towels. Finally, the downbeat ending seems entirely appropriate,

There are small wrinkles here and there. While Atkinson exerts marvelous control and energy, her delivery could benefit from a few more thrown-away lines to give her delicious rants more texture. And Grant might find a quirk or two of his own instead of toggling between affection and alienation.

Lungs is a smart play that will keep you on your toes, even as you contemplate the vagaries of love, family and our assault on our planet. And it reminds (in case you needed reminding) that things are plenty complicated in this fraught 21st century.

Through September 24 at Ensemble Theatre, Performing Arts Center—Notre Dame College, 4545 College Rd., South Euclid, 216-321-2930, ensembletheatrecle.org.

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Christine Howey

Christine Howey has been reviewing theater since 1997, first at Cleveland Free Times and then for other publications including City Pages in Minneapolis, MN and The Plain Dealer. Her blog, Rave and Pan, also features her play reviews. Christine is a former stage actor and director, primarily at Dobama Theatre...
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