nytheatre.com review by Montserrat Mendez
August 21, 2009
What a human play this is, so gentle and lyrical, so melancholy and profound. Nicholas Gray's Population: 8 is a window into the lives of faithful townsfolk as they waste away in the de-populated town of Loki, North Dakota. It is a memorial to dreams that are never realized, to an unforgiving landscape, and to hope, which has abandoned these people. But like hope often does, it returns, stepping on the dusty porches of life and asking us not to give up on it.
Please excuse me if I'm overly poetic, there are certain plays that speak to you and often times illuminate something about you that you didn't know was there. For me the play was about staying in a bad relationship that you knew deep inside was going to lead to pain and the feeling of abandonment, but somehow you are not compelled to leave. So you stay in this relationship and you suffer, and you cry, and you dream of a better time to come. In this case the relationship gone badly is between Loki and the eight people who have been left behind to love it.
These slices of life reveal themselves in a cinematic manner aided by projections of vistas and images of the characters' dreams and nightmares. If Robert Altman had directed a stage piece about the death of a small town, it would have looked and felt just like this.
The play begins with the changing of a sign. Jacob has disappeared, is believed dead, so the population sign is brought from nine to eight. We then shift to the radio station where Frankie has taken it upon himself to scavenge through the lives of those who left and read their letters over the air to anyone who's listening. Then we meet the other residents of the town—Man who is in love with Ugly who is in pain over having lost Jacob. We move from Cree, who has given up on preaching, to Mckoy, a non-hearing man-child; from Ruth, the viciously protective mother of Pepper, who would rather die than ever leave, and finally to Sylvie, who has witnessed it all.
And so they fight the howling winds of North Dakota until the arrival of a young man changes everything.
A play like this, which takes its time to reveal itself, is dependent on two things, tight directing and much researched acting.
While I found the technical aspects of the directing very good, there were one too many times when I was looking at people standing in a straight line, and felt that the play needed a more careful eye.
This is an actor's dream play, and every single one of these actors is grounded and emotionally truthful; especially Shonda Leigh Robbins as Ugly who wears her pain like a badge of honor. Maggie Low as Ruth is equal parts defiant, loving, and humorous. Garrett Zuercher as Mckoy delivers a triumphant performance without speaking a word. Still, I wished for an extra layer of specificity from the ensemble.
And yet that seems like nit-picking because the emotional resonance of the play held strong. Population: 8 is a haunting play. It will stay with me for a while.