When a play seeks to make a statement with a capital “S,” my spider-senses start to tingle, as images of endless monologues backed with PowerPoint presentations dance in my head.
Thankfully, “Understood,” a world premiere from Trademark Theater, isn’t that kind of play. While it aims to bridge the chasm between left and right in modern America, the execution is decidedly down-to-Earth, with real people talking about real things that matter to their lives.
Playwright Tyler Mills actually has created three plays here. In one, a young liberal couple in Chicago, Julie and Chris, fall in and out of love over the course of several years. Now, however, they mainly exist in the same house and fight.
After a battle about their missing dog, Julie heads back to her hometown. Her mission is to connect with Josh, a guy she barely knew in high school who lives on the Trump side of the street.
Meanwhile, Chris gets a call from Rachel, an evangelical Christian who has called the wrong number. Bruised by the conflict with his wife, he doesn’t hang up.
From there, both Julie and Chris take hesitant steps into engaging with the “enemy.” Unsurprisingly, Rachel and Josh aren’t all that enthused to be confronted by these liberals who want to take away their guns and kill unborn babies. But as the conversations deepen, they move beyond superficial rhetoric to the heart of the matter. Josh is a Bruce Springsteen character in waiting, while Rachel’s rough background led her to God. And the two liberals have their own lost dreams and damaging experiences.
Sasha Andreev plays both men, making connections that go beyond politics. Each can be a real jerk, especially when trying to score points against the women. Adelin Phelps walks a fine line as Julie and Rachel. Both are tough yet somewhat broken, and Phelps makes us feel it throughout.
Tyler Michaels’ direction keeps the action clear, even as it shifts among the three scenes and various time frames. Mills’ script includes some surreal, confounding beats that don’t sit well with the gritty reality of the balance of the show.
No 100-minute play can fix what’s wrong with America, but Mills and Trademark Theater at least point us in the right direction. We have to get beyond the sloganeering, the poorly researched internet memes and the bumper stickers, and get back to actually talking to one another.
Ed Huyck is a Twin Cities theater critic.