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BWW Review: WORLD LINE at TC Squared Theatre Company

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BWW Review: WORLD LINE at TC Squared Theatre Company

TC Squared's Volume Up series of virtual one act plays is posed to convince audiences they are up for the task of taking their programs to the digital realm for the time being. After logging in to their YouTube stream, one is met with a smooth, animated countdown set to a quiescent techno beat by Kadahj Bennett. After a clement opening speech by Ros Thomas-Clark, the program begins. World Line, a new one act play by Erin Lerch, is the latest installment in the series and, as Lerch admits in a brief interview themself, makes a great contender for a virtual reading due to its 40 minute run time and unconventional set requirements. In a narrative that includes palpably autobiographical elements, discernible even before Lerch explains their influences, Lerch explores tensions in a "multi-generational queer family". Eddie, a college-hopeful amputee, serves as our guide through a buffet of suburban, queer, coming-of-age tropes complicated and illuminated by the recent loss of their mother, the foreboding presence of an archetypically well-intentioned stepmother figure, and the desire to be the first astronaut to set foot on Mars.

Lerch has cultivated, to my eye, a little-explored but dishearteningly realistic commentary on intergenerational queerness, in which Eddie's mother, Sarah, a trans lesbian woman, can commiserate with Eddie's frustrations with regressive grandparents, but can't seem to get the language around their pronouns right. This rift, though not the main focus of the piece, reminds one of the ways in which the gender binary is still adhered to and upheld by huge portions of the queer and trans communities. Outside of this, the plot is pretty standard and plaintively suburban, exploring frustrations of children of single parents, a need for acceptance by a queer youth in Wyoming, and, of course, the theme of space as a metaphor for utopia.

As the final frontier, outer space has served as a tool to signify escapism and the desire to "get out" since protagonists' dreams of New York City became too cliché. Movies like Radio Flyer and October Sky posit the places beyond Earth's atmosphere as remedy to abusive home lives, Hidden Figures uses work at NASA as an antidote to systemic racism, and the recent Troop Zero turns to dreams of space travel as poultice against poverty, queerness, anger management issues, and repeated bed-wetting. The main difference between these four movies and World Line is that each of them takes place in a period which aligns with a global space-mania while, ostensibly, World Line is set in the present. The late 1950s to late 1970s provide a setting in which children of all ages were presumably occupied by fascinations, aspirations, and questions about outer space. Even after the Space Race, the expanses of the universe left a significant imprint on popular culture. The 1977 release of Star Wars and 1982 release of E.T. may well have launched a sustained captivity of collective generational imaginations had not schoolchildren across the country watched the Space Shuttle Challenger burst into flames in 1986. Though not a hard pivot, the following decades saw a shift in the common imagination of space. Movies like Apollo 13 (1995), Armageddon (1998), and The Astronaut's Wife (1999) do not paint the corners of our galaxy as a haven to which either a young Jake Gyllenhaal or an animatronic creature with a penchant for Reese's Pieces should long to go.

Without the sepia veneer of a period piece, Eddie's dreams of being an astronaut seem underdeveloped, childish, and insufficient as a driving force. Mostly, these aspirations are communicated by well-placed interludes- soliloquies delivered by Eddie set against a virtual galaxy background which breaks up the sea of solid white in which the rest of the piece exists. This staunch contrast in backgrounds reflects the way the dialogue of the rest of the play- mostly straight-forward arguments or debates over college acceptances- is broken up by Eddie's dreams of life as an astronaut. In a contemporary setting, Eddie is correct. A quick Google search shows that there is talk of an astronaut going to Mars. But unlike the reality for the young people in October Sky or Troop Zero, NASA no longer sits in the zeitgeist as the infallible team of geniuses who will continue sending fleets of astronauts further and further until The Jetsons becomes a reality show. Eddie, as a soon-to-be college student with an interest in space, needs to catch up to the conversations of space travel in 2020. Relying on Mars as a manifestation for the acceptance they lack in suburban Wyoming seems almost cruel in its futility as they receive a letter from NASA explaining why they will not send an amputee into space. (Which seems uncharacteristically final considering they almost sent Big Bird into space and did much of the logistical work to make that a reality.) To make matters worse, a halfhearted comment from their suspected stepmother-to-be affirms that they may some day be able to leave Earth's atmosphere as a civilian. Again, in a period piece, this dream may seem uplifting, but as Elon Musk has hinted at failed schemes for space tourism and our president has pitched the need for a Space Force, a 2020 audience must look at the bleak realities of the exorbitant costs of recreational space travel and the colonial tendencies which inform the U.S. obsession with "frontiers". In the end, a substitution of Massachusetts as a haven for acceptance seems equivalently lackluster and unable to give Eddie a firm resolution. This trajectory feels all too much like if Dorothy, hellbent on returning to Kansas, in the end settles for a plot of land in Ohio. Perhaps, realistically, Kansas is not the Eden she has etched in her memory, but we are not rooting for her to come away with a gimcrack consolation prize.

Maybe I looked at this piece from the unrelenting eyes of a realist, but I did not detect heightened language or flights of wraith-ish fantasy which could elevate the play to an exercise in science-fiction. Neither did I feel that the piece fully succumbed to the specificity of niche research which makes David Auburn's Proof, Paul Zindel's The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, or Duncan MacMillan's Lungs the heralded, if incomprehensible, works of poetry as which they are regarded. As this was a reading of a work still presumably in progress, I feel it is important to note that the piece is entirely salvageable. There is much that can be explored along the intersection of queerness and an affinity for space or other realms of the unknown. I wonder how a change in era might affect my perceptions of Eddie's framing of space. Certainly they might have different language around their queerness if this piece took place in 1957, but might that not be ultimately more interesting? Alternately, I question if Eddie was written as a younger protagonist if I might be more accepting of their irresponsible, ill-informed idealism. With this solution, I can also see more opportunity to showcase the repartee between Eddie and their little brother, Ricky. Actors Jackie Chylinski and Cristobal Pauline unearth the most rapturous chemistry as they debate clothes for an upcoming memorial and ice cream sandwiches.

Ultimately, the piece romanticizes a science that it does not explore deeply enough to satisfy, but is commendable for its intricate excavation of queerness.

Check out more in TC Squared's Volume Up series here.

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From This Author Andrew Child