“The art of losing isn’t hard to master,” wrote poet Elizabeth Bishop. “Lose something every day.” Chicago just lost two beaches, Brazil 17.5 million acres of rainforest, Australia close to a billion animals, Iceland a glacier named Okjökull. And these are the tallies we are keeping. The world of C.A. Johnson’s “Thirst,” where scarcity, civil war, bombs, looting, gangs and starvation result in a deeply imperfect peace “willed” by the man who controls the supply of water, is not unimaginable. It is practically here.
The play begins in the woods, where our future looks like another version of our past. A woman, Samira (Tracie Taylor), lives with a child, Kalil (Saniyah As-Salaam), and her partner, Greta (Laura Resinger), who does construction in exchange for food. Their conditions are simple, and they are scraping by a little better than most. They even have a few months of provisions tucked away. But where the Well-Man—also referred to by people who knew him before the war as Terrance (Gregory J. Fields)—decides who drinks and who doesn’t, the pressure to survive builds up fast. Plus Terrance is Samira’s hotheaded ex-husband, Greta is white, and Terrance has built his power on the idea that “these white bastards gone pay what they owe.”
Despite the fact that he has named himself king and has the brute force and firearms to ensure that peace continues on his terms, Terrance fixates on getting his woman back. The situation comes to a head when he cuts off their water to force Samira to meet him, instead drawing a pistol-waving Greta to his compound. The hullabaloo brings out the worst in everyone.
“Thirst” presents an allegory relevant to our time with dialogue and human foibles that look familiar to anyone who has lived a minute in our country. The moral of the work—which seems to have more to do with gender than race but could just as easily have been told without the ornaments of either—is something like: presented with unthinkable loss, we have the options to love, unite and create or hate, divide and destroy. However, the play only works if you try not to think too hard about how these women could be living in verdant woods yet dependent on a man with (apparently) the only functioning well in America. As the voices of reason, Taylor and Johnard Washington (as Terrance’s brother Bankhead) give especially nuanced performances. But the real and unanswerable question for them (and possibly us) is: why must those who know better always fall for the flash and dash of the militant, macho types? (Irene Hsiao)
Strawdog Theatre Company, 1802 West Berenice, strawdog.org, $26-$55. Through February 15.