In Duncan Macmillan’s Lungs, on now at the Tarragon Theatre Extraspace, two people—a man and a woman in their late twenties to mid-thirties—stand on an empty stage and talk. They talk at each other, mostly, about themselves and about more abstract thoughts, as time shifts in the script propel them from pivotal moment to pivotal moment. It’s a style of theatre that can go wrong in an instant—but it can also produce a work that invigorates, or even inspires, a passion for the art form.
Fortunately, this one does the latter.
Director Weyni Mengesha (known for her work on Kim’s Convenience, The Room at the Top of the Stairs, and Da Kink In My Hair) expertly leads actors Lesley Faulkner and Brendan Gall, playing characters known to the audience only as W and M, through a tricky script that offers no stage direction or commentary but contains loads of wordy discussions, life-defining moments, and indefinable emotions. The script has enough humour and plot to keep you completely engaged, and you’ll find yourself reflecting on small moments in the script and in Mengesha’s direction (such as one prolonged glance at the end of the play) long after the show is over—that’s what elevates it from a good production to a great one.
It begins with the couple clumsily beginning “the conversation” about parenthood, and as leaps in time go by without a single lighting cue or pause from Faulkner and Gall, we witness the trajectory of their relationship in just over an hour. The pacing of both the script and the direction has been carefully considered. While M and W deliberate and agonize over the decisions of their youth, the scenes are drawn out; but as they enter middle age and become less self-involved, the time whips by in seconds. Thanks to Mengesha’s control and the two natural and energetic performances from the cast, though, the show maintains a consistent rhythm.
In Ken MacKenzie’s set, one corner of the Tarragon Extraspace is covered in worn wooden slabs that evoke a comfortable café or a rustic-chic loft apartment—or some other location that suggests the lifestyle of a certain kind of twenty- or thirty-something city-dweller. The script gives voice to many of that generation’s concerns: the environment, the economy, professional fulfillment, worsening political tensions, whether or not to bring another life into the mess, and perhaps most significantly, what it means to be a good person. Such concerns, though, certainly aren’t limited to people of a certain age, and you never get the sense that Macmillan is attempting to define a generation. The script isn’t inaccessible or condescending—and doesn’t resort to gimmicks like including smartphones to add a contemporary vibe.
Lungs is a perfect storm of great theatre: the director, cast, script, and designers together produce a work that not only entertains, but also moves and enlightens.