“I have no problem with lying,” says Angela, the protagonist (and sole character) of Lauren Gunderson’s Natural Shocks, now getting its local premiere at Simpatico Theatre. “Sometimes it makes things easier.”
A moment later, she corrects herself: Lying always makes things easier. Keep that in mind as you get to know her.
Misinformation and misdirection are at the heart of this slim but effective one-act. You’ll never know whether anything Angela tells you is actually true. This includes the roiling tornado she mentions in the play’s opening moments—even as Damien Figueras’s sound design clearly manifests the gathering storm, the possibility looms that it might be a figment of Angela’s imagination.
View from the basement
Or perhaps it’s something more sinister. Whatever it may be, a calamity has driven Angela into the basement of her suburban home, rendered with anodyne precision by Marie Laster. Over the course of an hour, she tells a familiar story. Those of us listening will learn about her job as an insurance agent, her complicated relationship to her mother, and her unfulfilling marriage to a man who, among other things, isn’t funny. She describes her fascination with Hamlet. (The play’s title comes from a line in the “To be or not to be” soliloquy, which Angela interprets as a risk-benefit analysis.) She mentions a gun.
Caught off guard
This isn’t exactly a light conversation. But as played by Amanda Schoonover, you can’t imagine better company. She’s so likable, so personable that you can almost gloss over the disturbing elements that creep into her speech.
That’s as it should be. For a play like Natural Shocks to work, it needs to catch the viewer off guard. Schoonover and director Elise D’Avella ensure this happens most of the time.
The writing itself isn’t perfect. Angela is a would-be actuary—she’s in love with data analysis—but the proceedings lose momentum when they literally devolve into a recitation of alarming statistics. The final ten minutes, though effective, are nakedly didactic. Gunderson is currently the most produced living playwright in the United States (according to American Theatre magazine), but there is something slightly sophomoric about her overall style, and a weaker actor than Schoonover might not be able to hold an audience as rapt with this material.
A top performance
Luckily, we don’t need to worry about that. With Schoonover at the center, I rarely cared about the deficits. I was hanging on every word, every gesture, every sudden shift in mood that felt so fully inhabited. I knew this woman, and that made the twists that come late in the play even more unnerving.
Natural Shocks is the final play I’ll review in Philadelphia in 2019. I’ve seen close to 200 local productions this calendar year, and I can’t think of a more compelling piece of acting than Schoonover’s work here.
Know before you go: Natural Shocks addresses issues of violence that may be disturbing or triggering to some.
What, When, Where
Natural Shocks. By Lauren Gunderson. Directed by Elise D’Avella. Simpatico Theatre. Through December 22, 2019, at the Louis Bluver Theatre at the Drake, 302 S. Hicks St., Philadelphia. (267) 437-7529 or simpaticotheatre.org
The Louis Bluver Theatre at the Drake is an ADA-compliant venue with all-gender restrooms. Strobe effects are used in this production. All performances of Natural Shocks are pay-what-you-decide.