BWW Review: Science Meets Family Dysfunction in MOSQUITOES at Steep Theatre
Olivier Award-winning British playwright Lucy Kirkwood pulls no punches when it comes to examining family dysfunction on stage. Her 2017 play MOSQUITOES, which premiered at The National Theatre of Great Britain, features three generations of family members who are so fundamentally disconnected from each other that they barely speak the same language. Penned in response to Brexit, Kirkwood's family drama presents a microcosm of the wider societal divides in her country. This theme is equally relatable in the play's U.S. premiere at Steep Theatre, directed by Jaclynn Jutting--a production that marks the storefront theatre's debut as an Equity company. With a scientific subplot about the experiments that confirmed the existence of the Higgs Boson, or "God" particle, Kirkwood's wordy yet fast-paced drama evokes the intellectual rigor of Tom Stoppard and the relational angst of Tennessee Williams.
At the heart of the action are two sisters, Jenny (Julia Siple) and Alice (Cindy Marker). The elder sister, Alice, works as a particle physicist at the prestigious European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Switzerland. Jenny, who sells insurance in a very un-prestigious call center in Luton, England, finally has conceived through IVF after more than a decade of trying for a child. Two years later, when Jenny loses her young daughter, she and the sisters' aging mother Karen (Meg Thalken) come to stay with Alice and her teenage son Luke (Alexander Stuart) for what turns into a tormented family gathering.
The central conflict between sisters and mother stems from the fact that Alice and Karen, also an eminent scientist in her day, consider Jenny hopelessly stupid. Though Alice truly seems to care for her sister--she flies to Luton to comfort her during her pregnancy--the family's veneer of civility falls apart in the wake of tragedy. Eventually it comes out that they blame Jenny for her daughter's death from pneumonia--not without validity, as she chose not to give her child the MMR vaccine after reading an anti-vaccination article online. But their toxic sense of superiority fuels Jenny's downward spiral of grief, which Julia Siple portrays with gripping intensity and emotional sincerity.
Adding to the family's woes, 16-year-old Luke runs away from home after a traumatic incident at school. Alexander Stuart gives a compelling turn as the lonely teen who can hack any computer but can't navigate the vicious social dynamics at the expensive international school he attends. When the one classmate he considers a friend, Natalie (Upasna Barath), betrays him, Luke's breakdown is both heart wrenching and frightening.
As is often the case in real life, this troubled family consists of intensely different individuals who fail to understand each other, either on a personal or an ideological level. The disconnected nature of their relationships is reflected in the subplot inspired by Alice's research on the Higgs Boson particle. In a series of fantastical interludes, Richard Costes plays a personification of the Boson, who gives detailed descriptions of the possible ways in which our universe could die and predicts how future scientists will endeavor to avoid this fate. While much of the scientific jargon seems designed to go over the layperson's head, the emphasis on chaos and decay--and the resulting anxiety about the future--becomes a metaphor for the central characters' relationships.
Facing down her own body's decay in old age, Karen claims, "Love is something we invented to help us survive chaos." When we cannot connect with the people we should love the most, what hope do we have? According to the Boson, we only have the "delusional" hope of every creator: that "this time, we're going to get it right." But is this a delusion? In the final scene between the two sisters, Kirkwood offers a glimpse of optimism that suggests otherwise. But it's up to them, as it's up to us, to overcome the forces that divide us from one another.
MOSQUITOES plays through November 9 at Steep Theatre, 1115 West Berwyn Avenue, Chicago, IL 60640. Tickets are $10 - $39 and are available at 773.649.3186 or steeptheatre.com.
Photo by Lee Miller
Review by Emily McClanathan