Critical Confabulations

a theatre, film & pop culture review

Theatre: The Ruins of Civilization

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Rachael Holmes & Tim Daly in The Ruins of Civilization. Photo: Sara Krulwich.

Who: Penelope Skinner, playwright; Leah C. Gardiner, director
Where: New York City Center (produced by Manhattan Theatre Club)
When: May 4-June 5, 2016 (opened May 18)
Why Watch: When MTC announced its 2015-2016 season, many were quick to note that of the seven shows not a single one was written by a woman or person of color. Following a  social media outcry, artistic director Lynne Meadow (so, a female AD didn’t notice or care that it was an All White Male season?) quickly announced the addition of Penelope Skinner’s The Ruins of Civilization. (This won’t be the first or last time this happens. Check out CSC’s 2016-2017 season.) Skinner, a British playwright, had her New York premiere two seasons ago with The Village Bike, starring Greta Gerwig, and now teams up with American director Leah C. Gardiner (Generations and Born Bad at Soho Rep) to present this must-see world premiere which, rather remarkably, has never had a reading or workshop, but went through revisions throughout the rehearsal process.

About thirty years from now, in England, a married couple – Dolores, a dejected housewife longing for children, and Silver, an imperious novelist fixated on his work – struggle under a new world order where the government makes house visits to ensure their childless state. No children, and you get a stipend. Children, and you get… punished. It’s a bleak vision of the not-too-distant future when the world verges on extinction and bringing kids into it is deemed cruel, and more crucially, pointless. Dolores (a remarkably compassionate Rachael Holmes) appreciates the desolation of their future, but still longs for the best. She’s the more socially empathetic of the two – they should’ve stopped and soothed the dog hit by a car; why didn’t they help those hungry children? – but this is England, so they keep calm and carry on. No point in discussing things you can’t change, after all. Until, that is, Dolores secretly opens her home to a stranger, Mara (the great Roxanna Hope) –both a masseuse specializing in happy endings and a foreigner running from the poverty of her own country only to be spurned and deprived across the border. But Mara has a secret of her own – one that, as it draws the two women together, pushes the couple further apart.

Skinner has an extraordinary way with exposition, so subtly and slowly weaving it into the dialogue and stage directions that the audience learns everything they need to, just when they need to learn it. Setting the play just enough in the future allows her to deftly discuss vital contemporary issues (allusions to abortion, women’s rights, climate change, and immigration are constant and urgent) in a non-didactic, captivating clip. Because the issues she tackles are many, the dialogue at times bears some heaviness, but ultimately very little time and even fewer words are wasted.

The British work engages more on an intellectual level than an emotional one, which befits its serious subjects. Tim Daly’s Silver is perfectly passive aggressive – on the surface, an intelligent and doting husband, but one who enacts such micro aggressions of sexism that it’s startlingly apparent how such small behaviors (he consistently makes comments like “who do you belong to?” to his wife) add up to a culture that attempts to control women who then internalize the limitations placed on them. Gardiner’s direction is as sharp and stringent as the play, which is matched with an impeccable design. Neil Patel’s set showcases futuristic flourishes to a sleek, contemporary living space (a fridge posing as a cabinet opens with a touch of a button on the counter), Jessica Past’s costumes are doomsday chic (Silver has a cheeky pair of clear-heeled, slightly platform shoes), and John Gromada meticulously crafts an alarming aural atmosphere of mewling cats and perpetual rain. Without these divining details, there’s little to differentiate Skinner’s dystopian future from our current climate. The most astonishing aspect of the shrewd and bracing The Ruins of Civilization is its ability to capture our calm, determined march toward a terrifying end.

Bechdel TestPASS 

  • Two named women…: Yes. Three of the four characters are women, who discuss a variety of things including children, jobs, the economy, government regulations, poverty, immigration, etc.
  • Who talk to each other…Yes.
  • About something besides a manYes. 
Why the Bechdel Test?
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