Lehigh Valley Stage Review: LU Theatre Premieres New Play with Urgent Ideas

The following review appeared in Lehigh Valley Stage on November 25, 2019. Written by Kathy McAuley. Click the link below to access the original article.

In Liz Duffy Adams’ new play, “The Broken Machine,” the earth is being consumed by fire and its remaining inhabitants are careening around the stage in post-modern angst. It’s the environmental apocalypse whose warnings they did not heed and now they must face the consequences. Commissioned by Lehigh’s Department of Theatre, a play about the trashing of the environment could not be more timely and engaging for students; it’s especially fine because they have the chance to be the first to interpret a new drama. Adams has had her stage work performed throughout the country including at Lehigh. Her play “Or” premiered Off Broadway in New York. Last year, Lehigh performed her comedy “Dog Act” while Adams taught a popular playwriting class. (Check out her website at lizduffyadams.com.) The show also marks the retirement of its director and staunch environmental advocate, Prof. Pam Pepper, who’s closing out a distinguished 33-year career at Lehigh. “Our planet needs our nurturing attention more than ever before,” she writes in the program.

Destruction of the environment is not merely a topic, it’s the existential threat to human life, so how do you corral that in a stage presentation and make it interesting enough to capture audience attention? Adams does it well in “The Broken Machine” by placing her characters at the end of the world as they know it. Adams has an angry thesis: Our environmental and technological systems are broken and before it’s too late, we need to examine what we can do to fix them without allowing them to take over our lives. “I think we’re going to need some kind of human revolution,” she says in a program interview.

On stage, we first meet Mac (Allison Findley) camping in the northwest woods with a self- assigned task of making endless lists of things that have already disappeared from the earth. Her companion is Gray, a fox in human form played by Ryan Lewis. He sees no point in her obsession but is content to kibitz as he watches her mind deteriorate. As the fire closes in, a pair of sincere but ineffective forest rangers try to get Mac to save herself, but since the world is ending, it, too, may be pointless. Leidy Iglesias and Vaughan Kramer play the misguided Jane and Joe with klutzy humor. Enter the Psychopomp, a nymph borrowed from Greek mythology whose job is to guide souls into the afterlife. Played with biting humor by a wingéd Aiden Galbraith, this bemused spirit can only impatiently observe the earthlings’ lives devolve into a theatre of the absurd. Mac tells us the machine that’s broken is the human system speeding past “as in a car full of drunken teenagers, all oblivious to the cliff and the broken guardrail.” There’s nothing subtle about this play, but maybe all is not lost. Faced with existential dilemmas, one character observes, “Life is terrible and sometimes sublime.” In the end, we see Mac and Jane trying to get to the ocean, dragging a bag containing a blow-up raft, thinking that will be their vehicle of escape. Perhaps it also symbolizes our accumulated baggage the earth will either burn or be forced to absorb when we tire of lugging it around.

Scenic designer Melpomene Katakalos creates a realistic sense of the spreading fire set that actually drives the drama. In the background, glowing embers grow gradually stronger as the fire nears the beach. She starts off with a downstage setting featuring a take on Mac’s hundreds of lists looking like strips of old sheeting hung from the rafters and flowing in the breeze.

There is a lot of interesting dialog in this play; some of it may be missed because actors’ voices don’t carry or they are speaking too fast. But the audience will still get the drift and walk out wanting to do something to turn this buggy around.

Artists like Adams are warning us about environmental degradation so we are likely to see many new productions designed to make us consider the harm we have done to our home planet and, hopefully, what we can do to change our ways. In Act 1, Adams presents us with the all-encompassing chaos of environmental failure while our characters run about aimlessly. There is no Act 2 so we never know what happens to them. Perhaps we still have time to write our own happy ending.