If you see Third Rail Repertory Theatre’s production of British playwright Duncan Macmillan’s Lungs—and you should—don’t read the program first. If you’re already interested in seeing the play, you probably know at least two things about it: It’s a long dialogue between a woman and a man about having a baby, and it’s supposedly about climate change.
If the reason you go to the theater is to see experimental forms, fine: The play examines many years in the relationship between that man and woman, presented as though any time they weren’t talking about having a child has been edited out. There are no “scenes,” no set dressing, no visual indicators that time is passing—it’s basically a YouTube supercut of every time these people talk about kids.
For almost 90 minutes with no breaks, actors Cristi Miles and Darius Pierce impressively embody the emotionally athletic process of trying to feel, grow, and lead a life with someone. They’re exceptionally moving, funny, and not entirely likeable. Director Rebecca Lingafelter keeps things moving at a varied pace, never letting her actors snowball during what could be mile-a-minute monologues. Miles, especially, stammers and shakes in one moment, only to sink into stasis the next—dragging the viewer’s heart along for the bumpy ride.
And if the reason you go to the theater is to revel in leftist politics, Lungs might rankle. The ecological angle can get heavy-handed (especially in the play’s awkward epilogue, where the form finally goes off the rails), but it exerts a familiarly uncomfortable weight on the play’s two main characters. When his reusable-bag liberalism slips into classism, Pierce is stomach-turningly vulnerable. Of course, Portland’s theatergoing audience of mostly well-to-do liberals will see in these characters not only passions, but foibles and doubts they recognize in themselves. (For instance: Opening night came at the end of a smoke-choked, over-100-degree week that saw Portland break records for energy use.)
It’s Lingafelter’s directorial focus on the emotional that makes all this work. Far from a political tract on climate change, the play spends most of its moral energy dancing around a collaborative definition of love in a globalist context of creating, saving, and taking lives. Lungs is neither experimental for experimentation’s sake nor politically didactic, but you’d never guess that from the overwrought, unnecessarily extensive notes in Third Rail’s program, or the meaningless art-speak quotes from Macmillan in Lingafelter’s otherwise clear-eyed director’s notes.
There is no greater risk to a work of art than an artist’s explanation of it. Authority is a lie: Meaning isn’t made by artists, just like a life isn’t made by mothers and fathers. A work of art—like a child, an international climate agreement, or an emotion—is made meaningful by those who choose to engage with it. Choose to engage with Lungs. Especially if you need a reminder that you’re not the only one sweating, sucking smog, and wondering how to live a good life.