1960s Nuclear Fears Animate We’re Gonna Be Okay at American Theater Company

In the bomb shelter: The cast of We’re Gonna Be Okay. Photos by Michael Brosilow.

We’re Gonna Be Okay is a cold-war era story that reminds us that when danger is in the air, it’s time to take stock of our priorities—and give a little extra love to our families.

The American Theater Company production of the Basil Kreimendahl play directed by Will Davis is set during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. It’s a drama of human fears and dreams with comic touches, delivered unevenly.

For those of you who weren’t around then, it was a time when we really did believe the world might end soon. Nuclear-armed Russian missiles off the coast of Florida? That was enough to make me believe the end was nigh.

The six-character cast of We’re Gonna Be Okay is feeling the same way, but none more than Efran (Kelli Simpkins), a middle class white-collar worker whose fears about the future increase as the play progresses. He convinces his reluctant neighbor, Sul (Penelope Walker) to work with him in building an underground bomb shelter on their shared property line. Since Sul is the working class guy and therefore skilled at this sort of thing, he gets to do the most physical work.

Efran and Sul are the paterfamilias of the two families living next door to each other in tract houses. Efran’s wife Leena (Aditha Chandrashekar) has a college degree but stays at home (as most wives did in that era), even though she’d like to do more with her biology degree. Sul’s wife Mag (BrittneyLove Smith) is a quiet, thoughtful woman but learns to use her inner spirit in creating macramé and dreaming about horses.

Chandrasekar, Smith and Rodriguez.

Mag and Sul’s daughter Deanna (Sarai Rodriguez) is a 16-year-old who wants to be 25. She loves music, plays the guitar and admires revolutionary ideas. She’s ready for second-wave feminism. Jake (Avi Roque), son of Leena and Efran, is the same age but more innocent. He thinks the world might end without baseball, but seems sexually uncertain.

Act one carries the two families through Efran’s insistent preparation for the worst to come and ends with them listening to President John Kennedy’s address to the nation about the dangers off the Florida coast. In act two, the two families are navigating life below ground and trying to figure out how to handle logistical matters like waste disposal and the confining space.

A couple of lines of dialogue illuminate life in a fallout shelter. Deanna says to her mother, “I said I wanna live a life, not a half-life. That bomb shelter, this town. I mean what’s the difference? It’s all just. Nothing.”

And later, Sul, trying to soothe his wife’s concerns, says, “We can be whatever we wanna be down here. And I mean, if the world as we knew it ended, we could be whatever we wanna be out there.”

The story is about families living through a political crisis a half century ago, but director Davis flips any mid-century thoughts with his casting and a colorful, minimalist design. We’re Gonna Be Okay was first staged in 2017 at the Humana Festival of New American Plays in Louisville, where the presentation was apparently traditional. Davis, working with the Chicago Inclusion Project on casting, weaves in contemporary identity issues. One role is played by an actor (Avi Roque), who identifies as trans, and the other five characters are played by female actors, not all successfully. Walker and Smith as Sul and Mag are warm and natural, as is Chandrashekar as Leena. Efran, who plays a large role, is supposed to be a talkative, take-charge guy but Simpkins seriously overacts and changes the tone of the production, which varies from conversational to campy and back again.

William Boles’ set design is simple and effective and greatly enhanced by Rachel K. Levy’s lighting, especially in act two. Melissa Ng captures the early ‘60s look in costumes effectively.

We’re Gonna Be Okay continues at American Theater Company, 1909 W. Byron, through March 4. Running time is two hours including an intermission. Tickets are $38 for performances Thursday-Sunday. Call 773-409-4125 for info.

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