Lankford’s play features a zombie apocalypse crossed with an intimate relationship struggle.
Photos by Michael Bernstein
It is a sad but commonly known fact that modern marriages rarely survive the death of a child, the emotional turmoil of such an unnatural act wreaking havoc on even the most stable of relationships. But what if that child didn't just die, but was infected, along with eventually almost the entire world, and turned into a zombie? This intersection of the supernatural and the intimate is the subject of Dave Lankford's gripping new play in the New York International Fringe Festival, Night of the Living.
In the present day of the piece, Mia and Marshall are, as far as they know, the only humans left alive in Manhattan, secluded in the 15-floor apartment building they must secure against invasion every day and limited to communication via walkie talkie when they are apart. But intercut with this apocalyptic world is the couple's life before the fall, with their marriage on the brink of collapse, Mia pursuing an affair with a colleague and their son Henry getting lost in the middle. Each story takes place on their anniversary, and as the tales of love and loss weave in and out of each other, we witness how quickly and strongly love can return when there is simply no other choice.
Under the direction of Jenny Beth Snyder, Night of the Living successfully inspires terror without a single zombie actually appearing onstage. In fact, the overwhelming fear in this play is less about the hordes of zombies just outside the front door and more to do with loss, and the possibility of a loving relationship falling apart. Meanwhile, as we come to learn what is truly haunting Mia when Marshall tries to talk about moving forward with their lives, Lankford handles the trauma of losing a child with grace and delicacy.
The revelation of exactly how this world came to be taken over by zombies occurs very slowly, since that isn't really the point of the play. But as we do begin to pick up on the details, one cannot help but be struck by the overwhelming mundaneness of it all: a new epidemic plaguing a third-world country, a sick child who has a fever that won't break, even a child who gets bitten by a classmate at school at an age where that is far from unusual. Even as Night of the Living focuses in on the lives of one particular couple, it is clear that this could happen to anyone.
The true highlight of the piece, however, is the immensely powerful relationship between the two actors, who together must establish not only a complex relationship often on the brink of disaster but an entire apocalyptic world. The only thing separating the selfish, spiteful Marshall and Mia of the past from the trusting, intimately connected pair of the present is a quick sound and light cue, but actors Belle Caplis (Mia) and Eric Kuehnemann (Marshall) excel in telling a simple, clear love story despite all of the complicated trappings of possibly being the last people on Earth. That the duo do not even interact in person in the entire present timeline, communicating solely through walkie talkie, only adds to the strength of their relationship (and the technical mastery of the play).
Because of this remote communication setup, the audience ends up experiencing the play through Mia's eyes, a woman who is often petty, spiteful and appears to be deliberately sabotaging her marriage. Caplis' representation of the self-centered businesswoman is a difficult character to like, yet very easy to relate to, proving that it's not always the dashing action movie star who is the one holdout from the zombie takeover. And as her story comes together, we may not be able to forgive Mia her faults, but we begin to understand how she ticks.
The most powerful moment in the play, in fact, is Mia's recounting of her son Henry's transformation, which occurs after Marshall leaves her once he has exposed she is having an affair. Through progressively more frantic voicemails, we learn about everything from bleeding eyes to a SWAT team arriving to tear her son away from her, picturing it vividly though none of the action is ever shown onstage. This is the moment where we can finally be sure that Mia really does love her child.
From the instant that Marshall is cornered by zombies, there is only one way this story can end, and it is a well-known trope in apocalyptic fiction. But despite its inevitability, in the context of these two particular flawed humans, it rings true emotionally, and you cannot help but feel for Mia when she has to make her most difficult choice yet.
Has modern pop culture seen too many zombie stories? Perhaps. But Night of the Living is far more than that, a tale of love that endures despite all odds and the true emotional support of marriage. How many couples can say they could survive the same?
Night of the Living plays at 64E4 Mainstage as part of the New York International Fringe Festival through August 29.
This article was previously published on CHARGED.fm.