In the set Sarah Brandner designed for Understood, gray concrete-like blocks seem to float impossibly above the ground. The sight could be a visual metaphor for the feat the play’s characters attempt. In the superheated political climate of 2018, they try to have meaningful conversations across party lines.
Soma Studios at Grain Belt Studios
$20; $15 students.
The premise may seem naive, but playwright Tyler Mills couples it with a realistic exploration of a rift in a marriage. That expands the play’s scope: It’s not just about finding unlikely connections between red and blue America, it’s about maintaining the commonplace connections we tend to take for granted.
Understood is the second world premiere by Trademark Theater; it’s much different, and much better, than the company’s first. That was The Boy & Robin Hood (2017), an over-stylized fantasy (also by Mills) that never really justified its own existence. That’s not the case with Understood, which speaks squarely to our unsettling national mood.
The two-hander, directed by the company’s artistic director Tyler Michaels, is staged at Soma Studios, a flexible new art space in the Grain Belt building. Chairs surround the performance space in a thrust configuration, making for an experience that genuinely deserves the overused descriptor “intimate.” We feel the proximity of actors Adelin Phelps and Sasha Andreev—and, more importantly, we feel their proximity to one another.
Each performer plays two characters. We first meet them as Julie and Chris, a millennial married couple. Flashbacks establish that the two were initially as twitterpated as any new partners might be, but over the years they’ve drifted apart. An early argument is one of the play’s most telling scenes: Although both are on the same (blue) side of the partisan divide, Julie experiences raw anger while Chris acts more detached. Even when they agree, they can’t agree.
When the couple take some space from one another, they each meet a... well, a Republican. Julie pursues Josh, an acquaintance from high school, wondering if there’s any way to understand why someone would post homophobic, pro-gun material online. Josh is initially skeptical, but over a few beers, he realizes that he does want to feel understood, and so does his liberal interlocutor.
Meanwhile, Chris takes a call from Rachel, an evangelizing Christian. Their conversation begins as free therapy, and develops into something more personal. Both of the cross-party encounters could be hackneyed, but they succeed on the strength of the actors’ committed performances and the playwright’s discipline. Contrived as the play’s structure may be, Mills never gives us the feeling that these conversations are heading toward easy apotheoses.
Given how emotionally intense Understood is, its uninterrupted 100-minute length feels a little much. The play’s more experimental material, including some magical realism involving a missing dog, is distracting; and a couple of protracted silences go a long way, while Understood employs several. Nonetheless, the production is gratifying insofar as it holds out a plausible hope that there may yet be a way to heal our country’s calamitous schism.