By David Walters
Natural Shocks by Lauren Gunderson, now running at the Women’s Project Theater, is a dark monologue where we are told by an unnamed female character (Pascale Armand) that she is down hiding in her basement because a tornado is approaching. As the play opens she runs down the stairs and directly addresses the audience, explaining what is going on, why she is there, that all will be revealed, and that she is prone to lying. This confession leads to secrets she hasn’t ever told anyone, regret about her life choices, and both doubt and hope about her future. The lying is carried out to the bitter end of the play as the real purpose of the character’s fear, what the storm really is, and the purpose of the play is revealed at the very last moment.
During the sometimes drawn out and diverting story reveal, we find out that our narrator is mainly an insurance agent, but thrills at being a back-seat actuary with the belief that, “No one comes out of life unscathed” and the only hope is to try and control our peril. As she spirals down, the song her mother sang to lift herself, “Get Happy” (“Forget your troubles, come on get happy”) becomes a lifeline of hope to cling to. Through the course of the piece there are lessons about Hamlet’s soliloquy (To be or not…), re-insurance, the seduction of mayhem, and why a set of china plates can lead to the inability to act. Angst and pressure pile up, layer upon layer, until everything culminates and becomes, “a warning sign that no one ever saw.”
“I wrote the story to continue to push the narrative away from the perpetrators of gun violence and toward the people whose lives are lost, shattered, and shadowed because of it. So many of these people are women. And there is such a tight connection between violence against women and gun violence,” said Gunderson.
Lauren Gunderson is the most produced female playwright in America today.
That feat is a story unto itself: From April 19-23 of 2018 over 100 theaters, universities, high schools, and community groups across the country staged readings of Natural Shocks accompanied by audience talk-backs, and fundraisers to raise money and awareness for gun control and domestic violence for nonprofits in a national campaign of theater activism against gun violence. The timing of the project coincided with the 19th anniversary of Columbine and the National School Walkout on April 20th. The readings occurred in 45 states and the District of Columbia. Impressive!
For all my admiration for what the play has done, what it is actually about and the attention that it has brought to this grave subject, this is a very serious and heavy topic that a full production of the play gives short shrift in order to hold on to the element of surprise at the very end. The strong message of the play does not build with any real suspense (because she’s safe in her cinder blocked basement with just some wind noise) until the end when the true figurativeness of the tornado approaching is fully revealed.
WITH Pascale Armand,
Scenic design by Lee Savage, costume design by Jen Caprio, lighting design by Amith Chandrashaker. Presented by Women’s Project Theater (2162 Broadway at 76th Street, 4th floor). Its runtime is @70 minutes with no intermission. The show runs October 28-November 25, Tue-Thu at 7p, Fri at 8p, Sat at 2p + 8p, Sun at 3p.