In “The Concept of Anxiety,” Søren Kierkegaard wrote, “whoever has learned to be anxious in the right way has learned the ultimate.” To the proto-existentialist, feeling dread was virtually synonymous with feeling human, and learning to cope with anxiety and depression, even to embrace them and use them as a source of inspiration, was one of life’s greatest goals.
In that way, playwright Joshua Conkel, who wrote “The Dum Dums,” the play the Glass Mind Theatre is producing through April 4, is a hero. The program notes that Conkel initially wrote the play as a diary to console himself during a period of depression. But even without the notes, anyone who has ever experienced depression would recognize Jenny Traeger (Liz Galuardi)—Conkel’s female stand-in in “The Dum Dums”—as a fellow traveler. And Conkel has not just turned his struggle into art, but infused it with a brave humor, the kind of life-sucks-but-we’re-all-in-it-together solidarity that instantly connects performers and audience.
As the play opens, Traeger, a navigator on a spaceship in some futuristic world, is having a panic attack as she and companions Megan Schill (Ann Turiano) and Lambert (Sam Hayder) are about to blast off to a distant planet. The ship’s voice controller “Linda” puts them into a deep sleep and they wake up 200,002 years later on the wrong planet—one off from the intended target—and Schill blames Traeger, as navigator, for the error. Even worse, Lambert died during the journey.
The planet itself is a physical manifestation of total misery: cold, totally dark, and covered in black gravel—Traeger names it “Shannon,” after a girl she knew from preschool who was always digging her tights out of her vagina. The planet’s gravitational pull, stronger than Earth’s, has the explorers feeling heavy, always wanting to lie down and sleep. Traeger rants about how fat she feels and about her mother. She escapes from her predicament by downing dozens of White Castle hamburgers and binge-watching reality TV on her tabletlike device. The interludes when the actors become characters on a “Real Housewives of X”-type show are amusing and, along with others where Traeger revisits moments with her partner, are a glimpse into her muddled mind. As the action progresses, the interludes start mingling with reality.
The piece—described in the program as “a fully-produced workshop production”—is about 65 minutes and relatively slight. The play’s success is not its story, which is fairly undeveloped, but in the pairing of atmospheric misery and fatalistic comedy, a combination that many of us experience in our daily lives, particularly in the mindless distractions of social media and reality TV. Conkel doesn’t offer any solutions per se—neither did Kierkegaard really—but in encouraging people to embrace their pain and try to find humor and vitality in it, both of them aim to make it considerably easier to bear.
For more information, visit glassmindtheatre.com