Bedlam felt like a meat locker, as usual, when the audience filed in on Thursday night to see a performance of Catherine Czerkawska’s Wormwood. The cold was eerie as it lingered over an abandoned playground stage setup, setting the tone for what would be an intense, emotional performance about the most catastrophic nuclear accident in human history. Two sisters – one a teacher, married to a firefighter with a young son, the other a radiographer soon to be married to a physicist – find themselves incredibly fortunate to be involved in the Soviet Union’s high profile nuclear plant in Chernobyl. The first act took its time amping up the suspense. Occasionally the play’s in-the-round format prevented the audience from fully engaging with the characters, but this was merely due to circumstance, not the fault of the director. The narrative also seemed to run back on itself, repeating dialogue and going through motions already covered. Context is important to a historically acute work such as this, but it began to seem as if the play was circling above its event horizon. Everyone knew what was going to happen next, and I was itching to see how the disaster was approached. Nonetheless, we were wholly unprepared for how hard the second act hit. As Chernobyl’s utopian façade crumbled, the boundary between the performers and the audience did as well. One could almost taste the depleted uranium floating in the wind, it was described so vividly and horrifically. Every performer became the epitome of futility in his or her own right, and the play’s emotional climax was brilliantly written, and staged with incredible conviction.
While the production as a whole was well-rounded, making great use of very sparse lighting and music to emphasize forces beyond the characters’ control, Wormwood ultimately succeeds as a vignette of the six characters whose lives were forever altered by the meltdown. Director Julia Carstairs plays up the naturalism, emphasizing how the characters’ helplessness, and how a place that was supposed to represent the pinnacle of the Soviet Union’s power and these characters’ young lives was instantly transformed into the stuff of nightmares.