The principle of “Chekhov’s gun” goes like this: “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.” Chekhov meant that every element in a story should be relevant and contribute to the whole, that a writer shouldn’t make false promises. This doesn’t mean that plot twists and red herrings are off the table, but that when the truth is revealed, when a twist untwists, it should make more sense of all the details that have come before.
Lauren Gunderson’s Natural Shocks gives us the gun right at the outset: in a gun safe in a basement rather than hung on the wall, but we know it’s there and so we expect it to be significant. Though it’s not clear exactly what good it’s going to do to protect Angela (Pascale Armand) from the natural disaster that’s bearing down on her home. Subtitled “A One-Woman Play in a Tornado,” Natural Shocks traps Angela in her own basement (a hyper-realistic set by Lee Savage that nails a generic suburban basement down to the pink insulation in the ceiling joists), hiding out from a freak storm alone. (She lives with her husband, we learn, but he’s not around today.) Over the course of the play, she’ll directly address the audience with a lot of information about her life: her rocky relationship with her now-deceased mother, her love for her career as an insurance agent, her interest in the mathematics of risk, her troubled marriage. What we don’t really know is why. Her life, frankly, isn’t that interesting, and while her geeky passion for statistics is mildly charming, it’s hard to understand why she’s telling this story to us (or even who us is. Is she addressing the audience directly?), why we should be invested in it, or why we should trust her.
In fact, she says, right at the outset, that lying “always makes things easier”: turn the logic of Chekhov’s gun on that assertion and see when the lies begin. On the other hand, she also says, “The worst brings out our best…I think we’re more honest when we’re facing the worst.” In the end, the biggest problem with Natural Shocks is that neither of those statements appears to be true. Angela may tell us lie after lie, but what is made easier by them? Of course, people lie all the time, even to themselves—but usually there’s something to be accomplished by a lie, or some piece of character revealed by it. Here, it feels like each reveal is built to be the exact opposite of not just what we’ve been told, but what we’ve seen in Angela’s behavior. The character Armand is given to play doesn’t make any sense, because Gunderson is withholding everything significant about her and her story almost the entire time; it’s no wonder she sometimes seemed to lose her place.
There are all kinds of ways to build suspense, to twist plots and painstakingly portion out information and lay clues for an audience to put together later. But there’s a line where impressive sleight of hand tips over into outright betrayal of the audience’s faith—and Natural Shocks crosses it. A shocking twist needs to cast a new light everything that’s come before, not negate it; here, the actions we’ve seen Angela take make less sense after the climactic reveal. There may be a few bread crumbs in the trail that leads to the denouement, but they’re swept away by a ponderous hammer of metaphor that smashes the ostensible plot. Yet the overall style Adrales has given the play–Savage’s hyper-realistic set, with every door and light bulb practical, with every prop (Faye Armon-Troncoso’s array of weird crap is more interesting than almost anything else in the play) literal; Armand’s low-key, casual performance–makes it even harder to turn the narrative on a dime into a metaphor.
Lauren Gunderson was the most produced non-Shakespeare playwright in the country in the 2017-18 theater season, and she made Natural Shocks available this spring to be read and performed as part of a national campaign of theater activism against gun violence. It’s laudable to see a writer using a moment in the spotlight to promote important social change–but the work itself needs to stand up to the task. Natural Shocks doesn’t–and in a mission to prevent gun violence, it feels a little disconcerting to spend an hour expecting Chekhov’s gun to go off.