What is a life worth? What is the Earth worth? And what are we doing – what can we do, what should we do – to sustain and preserve them? These provocative questions, and other questions that are as worthy as they are unanswerable are raised by 18-year-old playwright Madison Middleton in her third and most recently produced play, The Dog Must Die. Part of The Highwood Theatre’s 2017-2018 “Off Your Rocker: Redefining and Defying the Status Quo” series, the play is accurately billed as an “environmental dystopian piece.” It posits a future in which a supposedly select few are sequestered underground in cement bunkers on the premise of being “protected” from the catastrophic consequences of human action and inaction – through ignorance, indifference, or intent – that allowed, enabled, or rapaciously promoted the destruction of the world they knew.
The set is simple but serviceable. As the play opens, the set (Kevin Kearney, set designer) is dominated by three pallid moons suspended against a steel gray sky at the back of the stage, each progressively, if just perceptibly, larger and lower. At stage right sits an ad hoc bar with bottles, glasses, and coffee cups; at stage left, two small round metal tables with chairs. At its edge, a low, brown vertical platform stretches the length of the stage, its audience end hosting a square, gravel-filled crater from which sprouts a plant-like black wire object, its dried-out vegetation represented as dusty, unlit, dull-reddish lights.
At the back of the stage, behind the bar, lies a bearded figure scrunched into an otherwise unremarkable sofa, eerily distinguished by an electric-blue LED light (the lighting design is by seventh-grader Simon Ellerbe, whose work shines, in both senses, throughout the production) illuminating the bottom flank. (Credit for well-designed, adroitly executed work also goes to Jade Brooks-Bartlett for sound design, master carpenter seventh-grader Jonah Witte and staff, and costume designers Tip Letsche and Pauline Campbell.)
To the extent the play is a parable, its five characters can appear as archetypes. Najat (Gayle Carney) and Abdu (William Greene) are a wise and personable senior couple whose repartee is at turns affectionately irascible, wearily resigned and warily apprehensive. The youthfully, optimistically resolute Girl in the Barn Coat (Zoe Walpole) cherishes her (and the play’s titular) dog. Both her feeling for her pet and the animal itself will arouse from the others, at turns, emotions ranging from a genial wistfulness to a judicious cautiousness, from a displaced fear to a furious envy. Walpole is open and engaging, skillfully conveying the complexity of a young woman who is all that – and yet, not the innocent she at first seems.
Maris (Nina Marti) is strong-willed and sophisticated, a genderqueer architect with an almost nonchalant acrobatic athleticism. Marti’s portrayal deploys and incorporates the character’s discordances, her body springing past or between other characters in balletically lithe yoga moves that unexpectedly interrupt, in a sort of theatrical, non-speaking parallel narrative, their (and sometimes her own) conversations. Or would, if anyone noticed.
Of course, there is plenty they do notice; but not all the same things. (Or, needless to say, in the same way.) Some of their reactions are predictable, some surprising, some even seemingly counterintuitive. Whether this is a function of the playwright’s skill or a reflection of the play’s early form may be, as also with the mobile Maris, something for stimulating post-performance conversation.
“Unimaginable heat, torrential downpours, infertile land,” Maris tells the others – trying to make them feel better. This does indeed describe what has happened to them, and why they’re in a windowless, airless, tomb-like shelter, their news feed choked off, their supply of Fresh Air, both literal and literary, blocked by unanswerable, inexorable fiat.
Except, that is, for the little dog. Dogs have long played metaphorical roles in books, plays, and stories, from Shakespeare to Dickens to Christie to Broadway; here, The Girl in the Barn Coat’s dog, a cute little black-and-white stuffed terrier, is both a physical and virtual presence. His ability to go outside – and, by extension, hers, making her the only one of the five so allowed – may also provide intriguing grist for post-show speculation.
The pieces fall into place in disconnected bits, some of which never quite add up. Or do they? The Girl in the Barn Coat recounts (more for the audience than for the characters) the circumstances that brought them to this point, which does nothing to relieve Najat’s suspicion that the Girl, a young medical professional, was chosen for special privileges – notably, to be permitted outside – rather than Najat, a respected physician, because of their respective races. As for Abdu, despite their mutual affection and common bond, he and Najat are poles apart when it comes to their fundamental appraisal of the situation, with Abdu feeling grateful, and even privileged, to have been among those chosen for the ostensible protection of the bunker.
In a moving and tension-breaking scene – beautifully crafted by Middleton and staged with discernment and understanding (all the more gratifying for being unexpected from such youthful practitioners) by director Samuel Intrater and stage manager Hunter Simmons (assisted by two stagehands, eighth-grader Amari Mbongwo and seventh-grader Jonah Witte), and acted with deeply affective veracity by veterans Greene and Carney – a smiling Abdu, clapping in a firm, loud rhythm, tries to get Najat to dance. At first utterly unyielding, Najat slowly unwinds, unable to resist the warmly familiar call, at last allowing herself to become briefly oblivious to their unknown, but almost inevitably posited (and justly feared) fate. As Abdu joins her, the two shouting their despair through defiant smiles, we are painfully torn – still disconcertingly uncertain about the circumstances – between aching and celebrating. Carey and Greene will also have a heart-rending moment of remorse and forgiveness after an ear-splitting explosion by Najat, whose backstory will either enlighten us to, or remind us of, pervasive civic and cultural realities.
The sleeping Man (who, like the Girl, has no formal name) goes with mind-bending speed from bedraggled to bespoke (credit actor Michael Makar, but no doubt others as well). Within seconds after seeing his comatose figure on the sofa, we’re watching him in a natty suit, hair smoothed and combed, engaged in a highly intellectual philosophical discourse with Abdu, who is, we are surprised to learn, a retired college professor. Both Maker and Carney capably embrace the dichotomies of their characters; with Maker’s enjoyable and effortless command of the rapid-fire patter (particularly given the 180-degree turn he’s compelled to make, with the veritable swiftness of a light switch), and Carney’s even more persuasive, masterful portrayal.
Faced with approaching floods, Najat finds comfort in her faith, observing that “we are made from water, so God’s returning us to water.” That this woman of faith does not also seize upon the story of Noah, and with it, find hope for new beginnings, further affirms the play’s pessimistic tone and the young playwright’s dystopian vision.
And yet: In a January 13 interview with The Montgomery County Sentinel, Middleton noted that while “[t]he ending of the script is often considered depressing,” she is “working on finding ‘the call to action,’ so that people don’t leave feeling discouraged or heartbroken but rather moved to respond productively.”
Knowing this young playwright’s work, I have no doubt that she will find it.
Running Time: One hour and 20 minutes with no intermission.
The Dog Must Die plays through February 11, 2018 at Your Theatre performing at The Highwood Theatre – 914 Silver Spring Avenue in Silver Spring, MD. For tickets, call (301) 587-0697, or purchase them online.