At the Unicorn, “Lungs” is an Angsty, Engrossing Ride

Francisco Javier Villegas and Molly Denninghoff in “Lungs.” (Cynthia Levin/Unicorn Theatre)

To breed or not to breed—that is the simple but staggering question propelling the anxious young couple in Lungs, the highly enjoyable, compact one-act by Duncan Macmillan that wraps up the Unicorn Theatre’s current season.

Over the course of 80-ish uninterrupted minutes (of our time—weeks, months, and then years for them), this strident pair only occasionally pauses for breath, delving deep into their conflicted feelings about parenthood and such closely related topics as the meaning of life and the survival of the human race. After all, a child isn’t just a huge responsibility for the parents, it’s a new carbon footprint, a source of toxic emissions that will grow exponentially over future generations on an already overpopulated planet. What are two “good people” to do?

“All that is happening here is…we’re having a conversation,” he says to calm her, a few minutes in. Which is true enough, and Lungs is a reminder that a basic formula—intelligent script, attuned actors, crisp direction, understated design—makes for very satisfying theater. Molly Denninghoff and Francisco Javier Villegas deliver superlative performances, mastering Macmillan’s sharp, snaking dialogue with a charisma that compels us to care about two people whose names we never learn and whose problems at first seem largely self-conceived (the very real threat of climate catastrophe notwithstanding).

Molly Denninghoff and Francisco Javier Villegas in “Lungs.” (Cynthia Levin/Unicorn Theatre)

Working with a spare, trash-trimmed playing area (by Em Swenson and Eric Palmquist) and minimal lighting cues (Alex Perry), director Katie Gilchrist deftly blocks the actors to keep time and space flowing—a brief pause might indicate a passing week; a sudden turn becomes a quick change of scene. And just when the “conversation” feels like it might get caught in a polemic loop, the characters stop talking long enough to face their fears, and grapple with unexpected results.

Lungs first premiered in 2011, but—like any recent work wrestling with the impending decline of civilization—its themes seem only more relevant today. Yet the play succeeds when its focus tightens on this specific relationship, and the characters’ powerlessness to save the planet becomes less pressing than their inability to salvage their own connection.

By the end (though the epilogue-ish ending itself feels a bit tacked on), we appreciate that what we’re watching is a heartrending love story between two hopeful, flawed people. And, at least while the house lights are down, what happens to them is the only thing that matters in the world.

“Lungs” runs through May 28 at the Unicorn Theatre, 3828 Main St. For more information, call 816-531-7529 or visit unicorntheatre.org.

Victor Wishna

Victor Wishna is a Kansas City-based playwright, writer, author, editor, and commentator, among other things.

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