Much of theatre is chasing intimacy, that feeling of climbing into a character’s skin and letting their feelings wash over you. Intimacy is a hard thing to manufacture, however, as if you go too specific, you’ll end up alienating many audience members, while if you go too broad, the emotions and message get diluted. Hyde Park has threaded the needle perfectly with their latest, “Lungs”, where somewhere in the mix of Duncan Macmillan’s finely tuned script, the actors’ authentic performances, and the wise guiding hand of director Lily Wolff, they have found a balance that creates the kind of tactile emotion that one can only find in the best works of art.
“Lungs” is incredibly skillful in its simplicity. At the end of the day, it’s about one couple trying to decide whether to have a baby and where that discussion takes them in their lives. By keeping the storyline basic, Macmillan has allowed small moments to take center stage, giving more weight to things that might seem meaningless in other plays. Frivolous conversations, jokes, intimate encounters: all become shining, crystalline moments, molded into jewels by the pair of pitch-perfect performances at the heart of the piece, shaped by Wolff’s insightful staging. With these small events carrying so much importance, when major story beats do show their face, they hit with the emotional power of a freight train.
Wolff transforms the usual black box of Hyde Park into a true theatre-in-the-round, keeping the action tight, with actors often inches away from our faces. Indeed, I found myself sitting right next to the male lead during several sections of the play, and, while admittedly awkward, it helps the audience feel more immersed in the action. Wolff is very particular about where she wants her actors, and their physical interplay is at times just as, if not more important than their dialogue. Wolff makes many intelligent choices with the work, helping to elevate what was already an impressive production.
Much in the same way that the focus on smaller moments helps to create the authenticity of the piece, it’s the small choices these actors make that make them feel so believable. It’s the way Liz Beckham’s voice goes up at the end of her phrases, showing a sense of doubt or tension, or the awkward way she holds arms. Entire stories are told simply in the way she manipulates a cardigan, which tells us more about the character than any lengthy speech ever could. It’s Michael Joplin’s expressive eyes. He doesn’t have to move a muscle on his face for the audience to truly feel his emotion, as the gleam of his eyes, their depth and clarity tell us all we need to know. There’s a sensitivity to his portrayal that’s refreshing, as we see a man not afraid to wear his feelings on his sleeves for the all the world to see.
The way these two actors relate to each other also helps the play feel alive. From moment one, the chemistry is evident. There’s no easing into it, or ramping up, the two feel like a true couple within seconds of their time on stage. They bounce words off each other like old friends, and when they fight, the words sting all the harder because they feel like they’re coming from such an honest place. Their actions never feel feigned or forced, and you never once doubt the connection between them.
As I watched “Lungs”, there was a moment in which I felt something within me change. I was no longer only watching these people, I could feel them. Every thrust and riposte, every jab and right hook, every caress or whispered word, I could feel along with them. These performers, along with Wolf, and the well-chosen words of Macmillan, had created an experience so emotionally honest, so intimate, that I couldn’t help but feel as if I was living in their world. It’s a rare experience, and one I won’t soon forget. “Lungs” is not a flashy play, it’s not what one would call “action-packed”, but it’s bursting with such authenticity that it would be a true shame if anyone reading this were to pass it up. Just be sure to pack some tissues.
“Lungs” is playing at Hyde Park Theatre through October 22nd. For more information, and to purchase tickets, visit hydeparktheatre.org.