Aaron Lockman is an actor and playwright. Credits include Metropolis Theatre, Citadel Theatre, Eclectic Full Contact Theatre, the side project, Surging Films and Theatrics, and The Living Room. His plays have been seen at The Theater at Monmouth, Mary's Attic, Prop Theatre, and Columbia College. Aaron also writes reviews with Rescripted.org. You can hear his voice on the podcast The Audio Diary of Aaron Lockman, or on the audiobooks Surviving Hitler, Locke and Key, and The X-Files: Cold Cases. You might also have seen him narrating sky shows at the Adler Planetarium. Aaron enjoys walking dogs, playing with Legos, talking excitedly about astronomy, and making annoying puns. http://aaronlockman.com
Pictured (l-r): Brian Sheridan, and Katlynn Yost. Photo by Mandave Saini
By Aaron Lockman
HOW TO LIVE ON EARTH takes place in a near future in which one of the various “we’re gonna go to Mars and start a colony” startups that you constantly hear about has become a viable enough endeavor that people have started taking the prospect of leaving Earth quite seriously. The play follows the adventures of nervous software engineer Omar (Arif Yampolsky), depressed librarian Eleanor (Katlynn Yost), unemployed and insecure millennial Aggie (Hannah Larson), and thrill-seeking doctor Bill (Brian Sheridan), as they apply to become one of the twenty-four people who will be sent to Mars to start the very first interplanetary colony, never to come back.
It is an extremely science-fiction-y premise, but its execution is much less science-fiction-y than I expected. Rather, playwright MJ Kaufman focuses much more on the emotional lives of our four protagonists — the varying reasons each of them wants to leave Earth forever, and the strain this puts on their relationships.
What’s lovely is how Kaufman uses her four applicants to explore a wide variety of relationships, some of which we don’t see onstage that often. Omar must deal with the impact his leaving would have on his partner Rick (played with quiet pathos by Jermaine Robinson Jr.), who isn’t keen on letting go of what has been a long and happy relationship. On the other side of things, Eleanor is just beginning a romantic relationship as she applies for the program, which makes the already nerve-wracking process of trying to figure out where the hell it’s going even more difficult. Meanwhile, Aggie and Bill both deal with familial ramifications — Bill with his mother (Stacey Lind) not wanting him to go, and Aggie with her father (Bob Webb) being unexpectedly proud and involved in the process after a lifetime of distance.
There is obviously a lot going on here, and most of it is rooted in tangled emotional connections — people wanting things from one another, and people not being able to give those things. As a result, this is a script that could easily fall on its face if handled by a director or cast less adept at building tension in individual scenes. But director Gwendolyn Wiegold gives each scene and relationship genuine heft, and paces the show quite well. And the entire cast does well with keeping things intense while still allowing for moments of levity and joy. The beginning is a bit slow, but it’s unclear whether this is the script or the ensemble’s fault; regardless, what should have been the ten-minute setup of the plot seems to take around thirty minutes — and even throughout the show, the low stakes can allow apathy to creep in occasionally.
The sci-fi nerd in me was initially a little dismayed at how little space travel was actually in this show. But the complicated interpersonal question that HOW TO LIVE ON EARTH asks is captivating enough that it kept me on the edge of my seat regardless. And the question is — what do we owe to each other?
A relationship, any relationship, requires a fair amount of selflessness, of putting the other person’s needs before your own. On the other hand, in order to be a whole person, the kind of person who is worth loving — well, you need to improve yourself. You need to do things that make you happy and keep you healthy. And this will inevitably, sometimes, clash with the needs of those closest to you.
Here, outer space is presented less as a sci-fi concept than as a metaphor for anything that pulls us away from relationships. Omar, Eleanor, Aggie, and Bill all have a universal, pressing, human need to explore, to launch themselves into the unknown. This is often represented by a literal call to the stars — lighting designer David Goodman-Edberg and sound designer Steve Labedz create, at key moments in the dialogue, an eerie blue light and deep alien hum that calls to our four protagonists, unseen by the other characters.
But more often, it’s simply represented through intensely relatable dialogue. This Mars-specific wanderlust is framed so that it could be anything, really. It could be an exciting and well-paying job in a distant city that you really want to accept, but which would require your significant other to leave their family. Or, it could be the unendurable knowledge that no matter how much you love a person, being around them isn’t healthy for you.
And so while this show never quite becomes science fiction, it does what sci-fi does best; using a fantastical element to explore an intensely personal issue.
As such, every scene is compelling, but a few of them are the gut-punching-est theatre I’ve seen recently. Because they show that infrequent conversation everyone has had with someone extremely close to them, which strikes directly to the core of your being. Like a collision of two celestial objects caused by destiny and gravity, there is nothing that can stop this conversation. And there is no way to lie, or bullshit a polite answer, or save face, because all pretense has been stripped away. In that moment, you have to make a decision that will irreversibly impact the other person.
These moments, handled deftly by the actors, are what really help HOW TO LIVE ON EARTH stand out. Despite some pacing problems, it strikes a perfect balance between the terrifyingly big and the terrifyingly intimate that is fascinating, enthralling, and mesmerizing.
HOW TO LIVE ON EARTH runs through March 24 at The Pentagon Theater at Collaboraction Studios. For more information visitchimeraensemble.com.