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Thursday, May 23, 2024
The Observer

‘Eleven Months of Nuclear Summer’ is girl power at its most lethal

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IMAGE SOURCE: NOTRE DAME DPAC
IMAGE SOURCE: NOTRE DAME DPAC


The production company Platform brings “Eleven Months of Nuclear Summer” to life with naturalistic acting, successfully giving apocalyptic stakes to the tensions, crushes and resentments of young adulthood. When a nuclear bomb hits the United States, six female counselors at Camp Astor hunker down. As the social order outside falls apart, riots and rapists outside the camp’s fence turn a summer job into a self-sufficient haven, and time freezes the seasonal into the yearlong. Emerging playwright Sophie McIntosh camps her play in this wild territory to explore how female power is constructed using reputation, challenging the idealization of “found families.” The dialogue strolls through a forest of teenage girl-doms — like emoji Band-Aids — only to stumble upon the wild beasts of suicide, mistrust and murder, which it handily (and horrifyingly) slays.

The six camp counselors are caricatures, but the play is self-aware of this. “Of course,” the girls joke, the nerd of the group has a father who is a French professor, since that is how the “nerd” stereotype fleshes out. The plot, set in post-apocalyptic isolation, is a character-driven power struggle that leans on stereotype to fill in the gaps, implying each character’s tragic flaw and ultimate downfall.

Despite the fact that the characters can be neatly slotted into roles like “the horse girl” or “the anime girl,” a naturalistic performance by the Platform production company lends the characters authenticity and dimension. The actresses’ varied delivery moves the play from the stage to the high-stakes: the rebellious Roz (Theresa Thomas) talks over the other characters, while the naïve Kristin (Lyric Medeiros) whispers her sorrows. The expert blocking skillfully shored-up character through implication. The performance — dependent upon believable interpersonal relationships — succeeded in building them.

In a bone-chilling scene, the characters steal a radio from camp owner Dawn (Sarah Myers) to listen to news of the outside world, and they hear that “All is death.” After this, denial becomes a religion and discussing the outside world is sacrilege. Intimacy forms when these rules are broken. The play shines in moments like the one in which Kristin begs Simone (Honora Whitmore) to tell her “something real,” just to escape from the elaborate game of pretend. The play shines when it punctures camp activities like fishing and mushroom foraging with hushed references to the apocalyptic reality. The women, desperate for connection and glimpses of sincerity, are also aware that their deepest loves and friendships are hyper-circumstantial. “Settle for me,” Kristin pleads with Simone, while steadfast Leigh denies that she only likes the others “because she has to.”

Relationships, romantic and otherwise, are substitutes, and the lack of authentic sentiment behind them is what the play ultimately condemns. A good leader, it suggests, is not one who can gather the most food, but the one who cares the most. Traditionally feminine methods for social play-nice like mindfulness, breathing techniques and yoga are tested by crisis. The play deems them worthy. A phrase like, “You can feel your feelings,” which might have seemed like an empty platitude at the beginning of the play, is repeated at the end in a life-or-death context, taking on new gravity and proving itself sound.

This is a young women’s apocalypse, and it tests how “girl power” and feminine platitudes like it take on a new meaning when they are practiced in crisis. The characters learned marksmanship from Skyrim — they debate whether Shrek or Paul Bunyan would make a better lover. However, among the maps, lanterns and kitschy cabin art, nixing therapy circles and deeming femininity frivolous (“I guess we don’t need flowers anymore”) is exactly what dooms this group of survivors. Though the characters can stand in their winter coats and pretend that the summer is frozen, the emotional shelter is as fenced-in as the camp itself. Platform sets up camp in wild territory and makes it out alive.