3 out of 4 stars
The program notes for We’re Gonna Be Okay state that the play “is set in our collective nostalgia for 1962”, which is key. Under Will Davis’ artful direction, the show plays with our notions of a simpler time, revealing complex individuals and their struggles to define themselves. The Chicago Inclusion project’s inclusive casting makes the show infinitely more interesting than it might be otherwise, (as far as I can tell, like its all-white, predictably gendered premiere at the Actors Theatre of Louisville). Chicago theaters, take note! Diversity makes America (and our local theater scene) great.
Basil Kreimendahl’s story features two next-door neighbor families that grill and drink beer together. Spooked by the Cuban Missile Crisis, Efron launches a campaign to convince Sul to help him build an underground bomb shelter for their wives and children. Efron’s overbearing personality eventually wins over Sul’s reluctance (and Efron’s money can buy Sul’s labor). Act One takes place in fresh air, while Act Two sees tensions build as six people attempt to stay sane inside three adjacent holes underground. The wives, Leena and Mag, bond over craft projects while quietly yearning for more fulfillment in their lives. The teenagers, Jake and Deanna, have all-American hobbies like baseball and guitar, yet are coming to terms with sexualities their parents may not accept.
The cast offers excellent performances, especially Kelli Simpkins as the self-important patriarch Efron and Adithi Chandrashekar as witty Leena. However, slugglish dialogue sometimes slows down the actors (the climax of an ensemble-wide fight scene is “you’re a bully!” ….which seems to stop everyone in their tracks). An unnecessary backstory for Mag and Sul reveals nothing more about the character’s current struggles, and the words “come ON!” are repeated ad nauseum. Making up for these quirks in the writing are the show’s fantastic set, sound, and light design by William Boles, Rachel K. Levy, and Jeffrey Levin: a Technicolor backdrop with a huge stack of pancakes and bits of television theme music evoke the aforementioned nostalgia, while cardboard-cutout nukes hang ominously from the ceiling. The underground shelter looks like an Andy Warhol soup can painting, lit in shadows. It’s a visual feast.
We’re Gonna Be Okay runs through March 4 at American Theater Company (1909 W. Byron St). Call the ATC box office at 773-409-4125 or visit www.atcweb.org for tickets and more information.