"Things that are so easily destroyed should be easily built, no?" asks Phoebe, a young, lean black woman, who cradles a machine gun, sings to it, then tucks it into bed in a house she just invaded.
Jen Silverman's play "Phoebe in Winter," now showing at Single Carrot Theatre, addresses this question by destroying, rebuilding, and again destroying power structures in just 90 minutes. Revolutions and wars that take years, decades, or centuries to unfold in the real world explode at rapid speed in the home of a single family. But in Silverman's world, the timeline feels appropriate.
"War" here is not one war, but all wars compressed. At first, when brothers Anther (Paul Diem) and Jeremiah (Matthew Shea) return home from the battlefront in WW II-era uniforms to find their father Da Creedy (Richard Goldberg) and maid Boggett listening to an 1940s-style radio show, we can put our finger on the time and place. But soon, when Phoebe (Lauren Erica Jackson) bursts into the room dressed in a bright red T-shirt and cargo pants wielding a machine gun, Rambo-like, or later when the youngest brother Liam (Dustin C.T. Morris) arrives in contemporary camo gear (and a massive head wound), all historical context disappears. It's not clear where the war is, only that it is in a faraway strange land that grows different fruit (Phoebe is unfamiliar with the apple Da Creedy offers her). The family has no idea if the war is still raging or has ended; if the latter, they do not know who won. As one brother explains, only the people who exist outside of the war can tell; those entrenched within the conflict cannot know.
Silverman omits the details that typically drive war stories; our perception of the war never extends beyond the walls of the house. However, the audience becomes intimately familiar with the fraught social and physical space the characters inhabit. Before the play even starts, the audience enters through a door at the back of the stage, walking through the tidy, cozy living room of Jason Randolph's detailed set, where Boggett waits on Da Creedy, who rocks in his chair as they listen to the radio. The roles are established within the first minutes: The father of the house is in control; the maid, of course, is the eager servant. Anther tries too hard to please everyone; Jeremiah carries tension from the war that he attempts to stifle with sophistication by way of reading and swirling wine in a glass. Still apparently at war, Liam is essentially forgotten by all but Boggett, who waits eagerly for her beloved soldier to return.
It soon becomes clear that the battle beyond the house is irrelevant. The war that matters is right in front of us. As quickly as we come to know the family dynamics, they are destroyed and reassembled according to the dictates of Phoebe, who, weapon slung over her shoulder, demands that the brothers make her their sister; her own brothers were killed in the war by the enemy, which includes Anther, Jeremiah, and Liam. "An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a brother for a brother," she says.
Director Genevieve De Mahy's choice to cast a young black woman as Phoebe—one of the play's strongest performances, along with Lauren A. Saunders as Boggett—lends an additional layer to the power struggles on stage, creating a more comprehensive representation of the social, cultural, and political wars that have dominated the history of the world. Though the differences in race, gender, or age of the characters are never directly discussed, they frame the war.
Because Liam is still absent, the place of Phoebe's third brother must be filled by Da Creedy, a true man-baby brilliantly portrayed by Richard Goldberg. Phoebe had no maid before the war, so the maid becomes the family dog.
"This is no longer a world where things get fixed, this is a world of inadequate replacement," says Phoebe. "You are my inadequate replacement."
This is not the final revolution we witness; "Phoebe in Winter" is a series of rebellions and coups. In a deeply satisfying, gender-fucking standoff, Boggett "out-mans" Da Creedy and assumes the role of Liam and, to his consternation, Da Creedy is forced to wear Boggett's French maid dress and clean the house.
The leaping shifts in power and (god forbid!) gender roles put the characters at odds. While some struggle with the new order, the world Phoebe creates suits the rest of the family just fine.
"We can't come home to what we left," says Jeremiah to his father as he soaks in a bath with a glass of wine and a book in either hand. "We have to come home to something new."
The home soon devolves into a war zone. Rooms are divided into territories, and forts are built out of piled furniture. The whole mess would appear juvenile if not for the carnage and explosions.
What transpires in war—explosions, violence, death, revolt—does not bleed through the walls of this home; it literally breaks them down. Silverman does not shrink the world to fit the tight microcosm of one family home; she amplifies this internal struggle to the magnitude of an entire civilization, writing with the unapologetic boldness historically reserved for daring male artists. The story leaves no room for sensitivity; it is brutal, morbid, and literal in its incisive surrealism.
That Single Carrot kick-started the season with this whopping social critique as a part of the Women's Voices Theatre Festival speaks to the company's audacity as it creates and adapts new and challenging work. Through Phoebe, the play crushes patriarchy, but the fact that a female playwright wrote such a grisly war story is in itself subversive (though it shouldn't be). Silverman flips a proverbial finger to the rule that women writers should limit their subject matter to what they "know"—domesticity—by literally bringing war into the home.
"Phoebe in Winter" runs through Oct. 18 at Single Carrot Theatre. For more information, visit singlecarrot.com.