The unnamed woman in Carrie Barrett's new solo play welcomes us into her underground bunker, where we've come for what's promised to be a seminar on preparedness. But we're not talking about, say, financial planning, or having a flashlight and first-aid kit ready in the basement. Our host is a full-on, NatGeo-style doomsday prepper. The aim of Barrett's darkly comic work aims both to prod and parody the mindset that leads one to stock a safehouse in preparation for economic chaos, Contagion–level outbreak or zombie apocalypse, and to slowly reveal the life circumstances that led this particular woman down that path.
Karie Miller's portrayal of the prepper is nuanced and compelling enough to hold our attention for 75 minutes onstage alone (mostly, but we'll get to that in a minute). Yet Barrett, who's now based in L.A. but received her M.F.A. from Northwestern, doesn't define her world strongly enough for us to get on board. Why does the woman's bunker seem to be going bonkers around her, with shelves collapsing, rice pouring from the ceiling and a bevy of beach balls bouncing into the room—and more importantly, why doesn't she notice it?
Director Megan A. Smith and scenic designer Eleanor Kahn handle this business cleverly in practical terms; Kahn's set is a marvel of low-budget ingenuity (and sound designers Michael Huey and Christopher M. LaPorte also deserve recognition for their subtle work).
But neither the director nor the playwright hint at the why—my early theory that this was all taking place in the character's head and we audience members weren't "really" there is demolished by the extensive audience interaction; at one point Miller asks an audience member to keep her company onstage for what ends up being half the play's length. And if we are really there, why would this paranoid germaphobe who's terrified, as we learn, of disease and infection have us in to contaminate her refuge? Such unanswered questions take us out of the world of the play, left examining the set to guess what falls apart next.