Can a play make the bitterness go away? With the nation even more divided after Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation, can a work of theater, staged on a budget in a bare-bones studio and timed to run before the November midterms, even matter?
Maybe it can. And right now, “maybe” is worth holding onto with all of our might.
“Understood,” a new play by Tyler Mills, opened Friday in a room in the Grain Belt Studios building. It’s only the second play from Trademark Theater, the new company founded by Tyler Michaels, better known as a prodigiously talented actor in Twin Cities musical theater. The first was “The Boy and Robin Hood” in 2017, also written by Mills. Who must have two heads, because the plays couldn’t be more different.
“Boy” was a testosterone-infused retelling of the Robin Hood legend, with lots of fighting and killing. “Understood” is an intimate, contemporary relationship drama that suggests a way into healing the rifts between us as individuals and a nation. It does so without being stickily earnest or hitting us over the head.
“Understood” is the story of Julie and Chris, a couple whose marriage is in trouble. When Julie takes a break to visit her sister in Chicago, she meets another man, Josh. Meanwhile Chris meets another woman, Rachel. Adelin Phelps plays both Julie and Rachel, Sasha Andreev both Chris and Josh.
The play moves back and forth in time, showing us how Julie and Chris first met, fell in love and married. The many short scenes are divided by sudden blackouts. When the lights come back up, at full intensity, Phelps and Andreev are in a different place on the stage, at a different moment in time or as different characters.
At first, it’s a bit confusing. And there are some scenes that verge on the surreal – snippets of conversation, dreams, the search for a missing dog named Jack. But things soon click into place. The sounds between scenes – sometimes loud and metallic, sometimes softer and melodic – are clues to what’s coming next.
Julie and Chris are liberals. We learn this in the first scene, when Julie tells Chris about a dream in which she asks their dog, “How can you be against gay marriage? Or say that global warming isn’t real? Or that more guns is the answer to anything at all? I wanted to know how so many people can be wrong about so many things.” To which Chris replies, “That’s easy. It’s because people, by and large, are idiots.”
Since Julie and Chris are the main characters, this makes Rachel and Josh – she’s an evangelical Christian, he’s a working stiff who’s pro-gun and anti-gay – the outsiders, or others. Conservatives who go to see “Understood,” if any do, might be put off by this. But Rachel and Josh are as human and as sympathetically drawn as Julie and Chris. Which may seem like a small thing, but it’s huge in a time when it’s the norm to demonize, satirize, memify and mock.
Early in the play, Chris says, “I think if you really understand someone, there’s no way you could hate them.” That line belongs on billboards. And what’s the start of understanding? Being willing to listen. Rachel and Chris show us how that’s done, listening first to strangers and eventually, once more, to each other.
Tyler Mills navigates rocky ground without resorting to clichés. His characters are real, their speech natural. Tyler Michaels directs with a sure and sensitive hand. The dialogue is sometimes tricky, and parts overlap as Julie and Josh argue, their voices rising. Over and over, Phelps and Andreev disappear and reappear seconds later. Timing is everything and on opening night, no one missed a beat.
Sarah Brandner’s scenic design is simple: gray boxes (thankfully not bubbles) and chairs. Sarah Bahr’s costumes are so impeccably neutral that Phelps and Andreev can switch roles from the inside out, without having to change what they’re wearing. Karin Olson’s lighting and Katharine Horowitz’s sounds are key to the play’s success. A few sounds neared jump-out-of-your chair volume and could be toned down a bit, but honestly, everything else was perfect.
“Understood” won’t save the world. But it gives us a glimpse of how it might feel – how ultimately freeing it might be – to have a civil conversation with someone we disagree with on things we care deeply about. Even if no minds are changed. Even if we’re still thoroughly convinced that the other is totally wrong. That in itself is a glimmer of hope, small in our inky darkness, but steady and warm.
“Understood” continues through Oct. 28 in Soma Studios on the second floor of the Grain Belt Studios building in NE Minneapolis. On Thursdays and Sundays, there’s a post-show discussion with a moderator from Better Angels, a national citizens movement to reduce political polarization. The play runs 90 minutes with no intermission. Adult language. FMI and tickets ($25/15).