The best historical plays also resonate in our own time, and that’s certainly the case with “We’re Gonna Be Okay” by Basil Kreimendahl, which premiered at the 2017 Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville.
At a moment when the threat of nuclear annihilation is once again top of mind, when President Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Un are playing a global game of chicken, “We’re Gonna Be Okay” takes us back to October 1962 and the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Two neighbors, Sul (Scott Drummond) and Efran (Sam Breslin Wright), are discussing building a bomb shelter for their families to share in case of a worst-case scenario. Even though they live next door to each other, in near-identical houses, we clearly see their differences: one family is focused on prosperity and perfection, the other family is only aspiring to it. While Efran is grilling up tasty steaks, Sul has humble hot dogs.
We see how each member of the two families — both men are married, and each has a teenage child — is restricted by societal expectations of the time, and has a different reaction to the possibility of total destruction. For some, like Efran, it’s a disaster to be prepped for and waited out; for others, like Sul’s daughter Deanna (Anne-Marie Trabolsi), it could be an opportunity to make a whole new world, far from the daily concerns of high school life.
In the first act, the men decide to start digging in their shared yard, then we hear the announcement from President John F. Kennedy about missiles in Cuba, and both families head underground. An elaborate set change at intermission (which is worth watching in itself) brings us to the bunker, which feels surprisingly spacious, although unfinished. The second act is less assured than the first, as most of the family members start to stretch out and enjoy their relative freedom away from the constraints of society, and Efran has a nonstop freakout about all the change happening around him.
The script is sharp and funny, playing with 1960s stereotypes while not becoming mired in a “Leave It To Beaver” satire. Performances are especially strong, especially Deanna’s song in the second act, which provides a moment of beauty and peace amidst the upheaval.
This exploration of what could really happen at the end of the world is somewhat marred by a murky ending that seemed to leave a number of audience members confused. The play feels like it simply stops instead of having an ending (which is different from having a resolution), and I found myself wondering if we’d suddenly stepped into an alternate history.
Despite this awkwardness, “We’re Gonna Be Okay” asks audiences to pay attention to our current situation and ask who we might truly let ourselves be, deep underground.