By Ted Hoover
Pittsburgh Current Theater Critic
It starts out very promisingly. When you walk into the theater space at Off the Wall Productions in Carnegie for the local premiere of Johnna Adams’ 2015 World Builders, you’re immediately hit with a stunningly beautiful set by Adrienne Fischer. It’s a bright, white room accented with very mod splashes of color on the floor and in the fabrics, and. With matching chairs and groovy lighting fixtures, it all looks colorful and fun.
But sitting there you begin noticing the piped in Muzak leaking from the ceiling, the “comfort” station with water and coffee things; shelves stocked with used games and crafts. It slowly dawns that you’ve been institutionalized and are sitting in the common room. Fabulously outfitted, true, but you know if the walls could talk they wouldn’t have good news.
World Builders continues through May 18. Carnegie Stage, Carnegie. 724-783-3576. insideoffthewall.com
Which is made clear when we meet the two characters taking us through the play’s journey, Whitney and Max. They’ve volunteered for a new anti-psychotic medication trial; well, “volunteer” only in the sense of family members saying “either you take these meds willingly or we’ll have you committed permanently.”
Over many years they have imagined out of whole cloth the intense and consuming worlds in their head where they now spend most of their waking lives.
Whitney has created a sci-fi landscape of distant planets, alternative life forms, ancient rituals and millions of people with billions of stories. Most of her day, most of her life in fact, is managing this sphere and shepherding the inhabitants. Max’s world is much smaller and considerably darker (since learning what it is comes later in the play, to say more would be a spoiler.)
Their monomaniacal fixation on these domains have led to serious problems in the past and that’s how they’ve ended up testing a drug which guarantees to eliminate their obsessive behavior and, by extension, the worlds they obsess over.
Playwright Adams makes us come to understand the cost of what this shift toward “normalcy” means. The drug takes full effect in six weeks so they must use that time shutting down and saying goodbye to the worlds they’ve lived in for most of their lives.
Adams’ writing is a lot like the set – outwardly it seems clean and colorful but underneath there’s so much more going on. There’s weight and purpose in what she’s saying and she’s posing large questions about the nature of reality and who gets to decide who has agency and who doesn’t.
She (and we) are fortunate to have three amazing talents bringing her story to life; Linda Haston directs Erika Cuenca and Alec Silberblatt and the cumulative effect of their impeccable work is, at times, mesmerizing. Haston’s direction is incredibly specific without a wasted bit of indulgence or flash. It’s rare to see a production so fiercely directed beat by beat, one moment following immediately from the preceding and fashioned into such a solid whole.
Cuenca and Silberblatt give a seamless joint performance, precisely as required. Whitney and Max, dramatically speaking, couldn’t exist without the other and watching these two actors navigate, with such felicity and balance, all that Adams has thrown at them, each leading and supporting the action at the same time is an immensely rewarding experience.
Don’t hate me if I feel duty-bound to thrown in one caveat … World Builders sort of slips from its perch toward the end. The story resolves itself into a much smaller play with a more limited, and commonplace, viewpoint. On Adams behalf, however, I’m not entirely sure this work could have any satisfying ending and if the one she’s chosen disappoints it may only be because everything coming before it has been so highly original and tremendously compelling.