As my biology professor showed us the links between cannibalism and a neurodegenerative disease in a tribe in Papua New Guinea during class the other day, I felt a sense of guilty discomfort. On a stressful Monday morning, the horrors of Kuru were the last thing I wanted to hear about. But my readiness to detach myself from another community’s suffering, so as to not add to my own, disturbed me.
While scenes of urban corporate life were more familiar than the forests of New Guinea, “Gibel,” an original play by Ben Symons ’15, which plays at the Off Broadway Theater this weekend, evoked a similar feeling of uncomfortable detachment. I felt despair at the harrowing lives of the characters, and relief that I wasn’t in their place. Not yet.
“Gibel” is set in a post-apocalyptic world where the population is controlled so precisely that everyone either has a job or is living off government assistance. The protagonist Reggie, fresh out of high school, unable to find a job or get into college, finally seems to find his calling when he is hired by a suicide hotline. His goal is to “close accounts,” a morbid euphemism for ensuring that the people who call him commit suicide, thus cementing the continuity of the “happy” world that his generation has created for itself. Things go all right until he begins a romance with one of his clients. The romance causes Reggie to sit back and question his actions, compromising his job and sending his life into a downward spiral.
Given the overabundance of stories like 1984 and The Hunger Games, post-apocalyptic tales do run the risk of being a bit cliché. The maddening detachment of characters from the twisted world in which they live, the overwhelming sense of despair and, most importantly, the “unexpected” love story in bad times, were all predictable themes repeated in “Gibel.” The play’s strength lay in its effective delivery of these hackneyed themes through the powerful execution of subtle details by a talented cast.
The play begins innocently enough with a conversation between four high school seniors, a scene that could come straight out of the 21st century. But it soon becomes clear from their conversation that their world is very different from ours. The stuffed toys in Leland, the suicide hotline owner’s office, help him cope with the horrors of his job — a job that he insists is saving their world. And while it was easy to predict the morbid ending by the middle of the play, the masterful execution of the climax by Emma Speer ’17 and Thomas Stilwell ’16 left me paralyzed and shocked for several moments.
Symons’s mind must truly be a complex place for him to have thought of a plot with as many layers and underlying themes as “Gibel.” However, perhaps the theme that stood out to me most was the play’s attempt to challenge the foundations of happiness. The play’s characters live in a world where everyone has food and a home, even if they do not have a job. Yet, Reggie admits pessimistically toward the middle of the play, “We do not live in a sane world.” In having it all, the characters seem to lose their sense of purpose, self-esteem and happiness. The conflict between Reggie’s morals, his feelings for Mary and his desire to find a source of purpose and self-esteem through his work form the central narrative of the play. The play, which is based on Wyman’s own experience with mental health issues, reveals that depression can hit anyone, under seemingly happy and successful circumstances. This is best epitomized by Reggie’s complex character beneath a happy, mundane exterior, skillfully performed by Stilwell.
Also powerful is the play’s portrayal of the complex, disturbed individuals working at the suicide hotline, further exploring themes of depression and the loneliness it evokes among individuals. Reggie’s colleague and competitor Jordan’s dark, depressing messages to the old lady she is trying to convince to commit suicide carry implicit connections with her own life and dissatisfaction. One of the employee’s emphatic comments on her job couldn’t carry a hollower message: “We are not the lives we spent all week with.”
While there is no doubt that “Gibel” is a powerful piece of art, both in content and execution, I am still confused about the exact message of the play. Most post-apocalyptic stories seem to suggest that our present world is heading for ruin. It is hard to say whether the play aimed at keeping up with this tradition by hinting at a similar future for our world, or whether it only sought to explore much-discussed themes of depression. While “Gibel” hits home on workplace politics and tensions, as well as depression and loneliness, the future crisis it describes did seem a bit far-fetched and exaggerated to me.
To prospective spectators: Don’t go to this play expecting a happy ending, or reassurance, or even a sense of closure. The play is about despair, and despair is what it will leave you with. But if dark stories fascinate you as much as they fascinate me, rest assured, the play will not disappoint.
As Reggie reached for the phone in the last scene and dialed the hotline’s number, seemingly to “close his account,” the curtain fell and I stepped out into the darkness and rain. The night had never felt so comforting before.