On an unseasonably warm evening, a middle-class dad named Efran is out in his suburban yard sucking on a Schlitz beer and delivering a slightly unhinged lecture to his next-door neighbor Sul on the crumbling state of civilization.
“There’s a dark side out there. … a seething underbelly,” Efran says. There are “gangs of youth runnin’ around kickin’ people with heavy shoes.” There are “the people runnin’ things [who] don’t give a damn about you and me and our families.” And, of course, there is the impending threat of nuclear annihilation and, so, Efran explains, the need for his and Sul’s family go in as partners on an underground bomb shelter.
Efran shares his fears in B Street Theatre’s latest production, “We’re Gonna Be Okay,” a dark comedy that is timeless and particularly timely as it relates to how everyday people cope or crumble under the threat of affairs over which they have little or no control.
Basil Kreimendahl’s play is set in an unnamed “Middle America” community amidst the terrifying 1962 Cuban missile crisis, a 13-day conflict during which the U.S. and the former Soviet Union came closest to nuclear conflict over the Soviets building missile sites in Cuba.
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Granted, this does not sound like the makings of a comedy, let alone a particularly funny one. But it works. This is no “Springtime for Hitler.” Kreimendahl’s script is sharp and provocative, with an ever-changing cadence of dialogue and storytelling that switches from rapid-fire give-and take to short monologues to, at times, soulful songs. Beyond the fears of nuclear conflict and mayhem in the streets, this drama also takes a light-hearted but emotionally honest look at other timeless issues, including the struggles of married women and mothers with societal roles, and teenagers grappling with their sexual identity and their strained relationships with their parents.
Under Buck Busfield’s adroit direction, the six-member acting ensemble (five are B Street veterans and one is making his B Street debut) are nimble and passionate as they ride the waves of Kreimendahl’s undulating approach to storytelling. Indeed, the entire mood changes from Act I, which takes place in the adjoining front yards that Efran and Sul’s families share, to Act II, which is set entirely underground in the families’ recently completed bomb shelter.
Dave Pierini, as Efran, is mesmerizing as the center of the drama, delivering two entirely different but equally dynamic performances. In the first act, he is the fast-talking neighbor who knows best. He holds hostage anyone within earshot as he doles out heaps of unsolicited advice and boasts of having only the best steaks, beer, wife, son, fill in the blank. In one scene, he takes a pair of tongs and rearranges the corn that neighbor Sul has just placed on his own grill. And he brags about his new color TV, a luxury in the early 1960s: “The black and white, it numbs the brain. … Now we got the color television. I think it’s gonna zap that creativity back in you.”
In Act II, Efran falls apart, crumbling minute by minute as the fear and stress of the close quarters — and the fear of the unknown above ground — devours him.
Elisabeth Nunziato, as Efran’s wife Leena, and Jason Kuykendall and Dana Brooke, as neighbors Sul and Mag, deliver compelling performances as they orbit around, tolerate, challenge and, eventually, console this force of nature.
Brooke’s performance is particularly powerful in one scene where her teenage daughter Deanna (Stephanie Altholz) sings and plays a slow, sad song on guitar. Brooke does not utter a single word, and she is frozen in place but her face expresses all of her love and sadness at that very moment.
Altholz and B Street newcomer Doug Harris, as Efran and Leena’s teenage son Jake, share a great chemistry as two teenagers who are polar opposites yet lumped together because their parents are neighbors and, well, they have to share tight quarters in a bomb shelter. Altholz, who appeared recently in B Street’s “Airness,” adds a strong singing voice to her actor’s toolbox. And some of Harris’ strongest acting comes when he is silent and off to the side of the action, watching his father’s slow spiral out of control.
Ian B. Wallace’s painstakingly detailed and realistic set, Sarah Carman’s sock-hop-styled costumes and the background musical selections are outstanding and transformative, delivering the audience to another time and place, if only for a couple of hours.
Playwright Kreimendahl’s message is that regardless of time or place, society’s challenges will remain a constant, stubborn and seemingly intractable. Is there reason for hope? Well, the name of the play offers up a hint.
We’re Gonna Be Okay
What: A comedy about two average American families during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis who, fearing impending nuclear warfare, agree to build a bomb shelter under their shared property line. Presented by B Street Theatre. Written by Basil Kreimendahl. Directed by Buck Busfield.
Where: Sofia Tsakopoulos Center for the Arts, 2700 Capitol Ave.
When: 6:30 p.m. Tuesdays; 2 and 6:30 p.m. Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays; 5 and 9 p.m. Saturdays; and 2 p.m. Sundays. Through Sept. 9.
Cost: $27-$46, discounts available for students and seniors
Information: 916-443-5300 or bstreettheatre.org
Running time: About 120 minutes, including a 15-minute intermission