Looking through the window of the control room at the stars, Leonid (CJ Lange-Embree) muses on how much he always wanted to be an astronaut. It’s too late for that. He’s been sipping vodka at the switches all night, the reactor is melting down, and there’s nothing he, his diligent counterpart Akimov (RJ Cecott), or their unit chief Anatoly (Ethan Carlson) can do to stop it. Playwright David Hartley’s new show for Theatre Above the Law, Chernobyl, captures the plight of these men in the midst of their catastrophe and in retrospect, years later, as a team of foreign journalists—Sarah (Megan Clarke), Katie (Jamie Redwood), and Kriegel (also Carlson)—sift through detritus within the radioactive containment zone, poring over chance discoveries for answers as to what went wrong.
Ghosts of Chernobyl
Through 2/27: Fri-Sat 8 PM, Sun 3 PM; also Mon 2/21, 7:30 PM, Jarvis Square Theatre, 1439 W. Jarvis, theatreatl.org, $23 ($20 students).
The play reenacts the accident blow by blow with a leaden sort of fidelity that drags during the early parts of the action—the HBO miniseries Chernobyl (2019) dispenses with these stages of the story quickly, focusing the bulk of its attention on the disaster’s aftermath: causes emerge, blame is assigned, and a clear picture develops. But this is a play about burrowing deeply into the experience of disaster itself, and about how little the forces of history allow the people caught in them to understand their own role in the moment.
Hartley’s set places the show (directed by Michael Dalberg) entirely within the close quarters of the engineers’ dingy-looking lab at Chernobyl, with the plant’s readout console along one wall, a writing desk across from it, and a long fireproof cabinet upstage where Leonid keeps his vodka stashed. Forward in time from the meltdown: as the journalists probe around these cramped depths of the exclusion zone with masks and dosimeter eyepieces at the ready, Katie has a series of otherworldly visions. Past and present blur together in front of her—which seems about right for someone huffing enough nuclear meltdown fallout to bewilder a mastodon. Her vision scenes read as hallucinations, but the last third or so of this 85-minute play insists on the reality of the ghost story, with Sarah quoting from esoteric research on how the souls of plant workers who died on the job might still be lingering in the reactor’s walls.
The conceit is a little too insistent as dialogue—as far as ghosts, we’re at a play, so seeing is believing—but it does serve well for knitting together the parallel storylines, and Redwood’s performance shows much gestural subtlety in navigating these shifts between reality and fantasy. As Katie’s personal stake in things gets gradually revealed, Redwood’s movements register the shedding of spiritual burdens, the mark both of deep secrets leaving her consciousness and of her soul venturing out to test new realms. As the two perspectives of the play—the one embedded in history and the one sorting through its remains—converge, the full sweep provides all parties with answers and closure they never would have otherwise reached. The work of investigating causes and gathering facts can continue, but the ghosts can finally sleep.