Saturday, November 9, 2019

"A Life of Days" by nimbus theatre at the Crane Theater

nimbus theatre's new original plays always explore some fascinating topic, idea, or historical era in a way that gets me thinking and wanting to know more. Their latest such work, A Life of Days, officially opens tonight and was inspired by a true story about a family that lived completely isolated in Siberia for 40 years. You can read that super fascinating story here, as well as playwright Liz Neerland's other literary research and inspiration here. I want to read all of these books, preferably by myself in a remote cabin in the woods, but as that's not possible at the moment, I'll settle for seeing this thoughtful rumination on solitude, society, nature, civilization, and humanity.

The story that inspired this play is one of a family retreating to the wild to escape religious persecution in 1930s Russia, not encountering another human until geologists came upon them in the '70s. This story is about a family retreating to the wild to escape a pending nuclear war in the early 1960s, which we know never happened, but the isolated family does not. Vira, who was born in the remote cabin in the woods where park service employees find her in 2017, was told by her father that civilization was destroyed by a nuclear war, and possibly even that Russians have taken over the country. Callie and David are exploring the area that has recently been designated as wilderness when they encounter Vira, now living alone in her cabin. After some hesitation, Vira welcomes them and tells them about her life. We flash back to scenes of a younger Vira and her brother Nikon, going through their daily chores and entertaining themselves by telling stories of their life together and finding shapes in the stars. There's some talk about what's going to happen to Vira now that the outside world knows about her, but it's never resolved, it's more about the exploration of and contrast between the ideas of solitude and society.

Vira says, "it's so hard, just living." Her life is so busy with securing food and shelter for herself that she doesn't have time for anything else. As opposed to Callie and David and the rest of us who live in the modern world, where the stuff of living is made relatively easy with modern conveniences - we can have food delivered to our door via an ap, we don't need to travel on foot for days to kill a deer to sustain us for the winter. But somehow we've managed to fill that time saved by modern conveniences with so much other stuff, that it can be overwhelming. That's the appeal of Vira's life, like when I go on hiking vacations where my only goal is to get from point A to point B, and my entire day is focused simply on that, free from the usual distractions of modern life, which is incredibly freeing and calming. But yet that's romanticizing Vira's life which is harsh and difficult; the real life Russian family suffered starvation related illnesses and death. The play explores those two extremes of lifestyle, and what happens when they intersect.

Delta Rae Giordano as Vira (photo by Emmet Kowler)
The strong five-person cast includes Cate Jackson and Delta Rae Giordano as the two versions of Vira, believable as the same character, one a little more light-hearted and innocent, the other more somber and pragmatic. Cate's Vira and Nicholas Nelson's Nikon have a lovely brother/sister chemistry, that makes the inevitable ending even more tragic. Brid Henry and Gregory Yang are appealing as the park service employees, curious and friendly, their modern presence in sharp contrast to Vira's world.

Directed by Josh Cragun, the play smoothly transitions between the present and the past, with present day Vira beginning telling a story to Callie and David, as they fade to black and the focus moves to Vira and Nikon in the past. There's a lot of silence and an unhurried pace as we watch Vira in her daily life. I saw a preview, and perhaps it will tighten up a bit as the run progresses, but the slow pace and silence feel appropriate to the setting and the story, and really give the audience a sense of the extremes of solitude and silence experienced by Vira. As does the incredibly detailed set (designed by Brian Hesser), with a ramshackle shelter that looks like it's been there for decades, surrounded by slopes and stairs to represent the outside world. Vira and Nikon's artfully distressed and shabby garments contrast with Callie and David's modern functional chic hiking gear (costume design by Rubble&Ash). And these two could be an ad for how easy it is to assemble and disassemble a tent!

The thoughtful and thought-provoking A Life of Days continues through November 24 at the Crane Theater in Northeast Minneapolis.

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