Shipwreck is the kind of play a lot of theatregoers say they want more of: Mature, smart, long, and deeply and unapologetically political. Its appeal will not be universal, but its impact is huge.
Written (wisely) by Anne Washburn, directed (superbly) by Saheem Ali, and going on now until March 8 at Woolly Mammoth, Shipwreck: A History Play About 2017 has an awful lot to say, but one struggles to pin down what it’s “about” without either giving the game away or putting some words into its already quite busy mouth. It’s about a group of friends gathered at a lovely, but annoyingly poorly stocked (seriously? no coffee or booze?), country home in upstate New York, braving out a snowstorm. And it’s about Mark (a haunting Mikéah Ernest Jennings), a Kenyan-born born American adoptee with white parents, reflecting on the cultural clashes and ponderous racial history that inform his U.S. existence.
Really, though, it’s about President Trump. Trump the divider, Trump the uniter, Trump the then-new commander in chief, who shocked the world with his Electoral College victory and was/is set to dominate the news cycle for years on end. As the electricity and cell phones fail in that snowy getaway — and as Mark’s history catches up to 21st century reality — the conversation turns more and more, inexorably and grimly, to the 45th president. How could he win? What will he do? What are the “red zone” voters of America thinking?
I’ll be honest: I was worried going in. Plays that try to dive into (nevermind swim in) politics tend to make my eyes glaze over. But there’s a good conversation early on about if theatre is “powerless” and if we sacrifice timeless for timely that shows Washburn is ready for her detractors. And that’s one of several rich, engaging dialectics to which the audience is treated, from a universally talented cast of eight that clearly knows how lucky it is.
Love national politics? This is the play for you. Hate ’em and wish they would die? Well, no spoilers, but you, too, should see this show.