One of the beautiful things a play can do so well is to make a concrete reality of an abstract problem. Many legitimate, competing points of view swirl around the issue of immigration, but the mundane realities of the lives of immigrants’ and their families may swim under the radar of those who make and listen to the arguments about how to handle the problems that have resulted. By focusing on the microcosm in her work, “The Rare Biosphere,” the highly awarded playwright, Chris Cragin Day, compels the audience to think about the smallest unit in the big picture.
Directed with grace and understanding by Christopher J. Domig, the intense 95-minute drama concerns the experience of Sophie, played bilingually and with great sensitivity by Natalia Plaza, who returns home from school one day to learn that her parents have been incarcerated and are likely to be deported. We meet her as an optimistic, high-achieving, functional first-generation American girl, but her American dream suffers a rude awakening when she is compelled to put her parents’ “plan” for this horrible circumstance into action. As she turns eighteen, she is faced with a decision to forfeit her dream of becoming a microbiologist who will study the eponymous “rare biosphere.” She believes that she must do this in order to provide a life for her two younger brothers (represented by offstage voices and onstage toys and clothing). Her own thinking about how to survive clashes head-on with the ideas of a friend, Steven, who wants to be her boyfriend and help her. Zac Owens, as Steve, offers a nuanced performance that details with poignance the evolving understanding of a teenager whose comfortable American dream is disrupted by the unfairness of Sophie’s reality. Sophie and her brothers are citizens, but their freedoms are not equal to those of Steven and his family. Their youth and their family history are both points of pride and obstacles to be overcome.
When I read this play, I decided I would be especially interested to see how the Director, Christopher Domig, also the Artistic Director of the production company, Sea Dog Theater, would direct it to incorporate the idea of the rare biosphere that Sophie wants to research in college — a realm of bacterial microorganisms which seemed, to me, far away from the daily reality of Raleigh, North Carolina. This is a well-integrated production that takes great advantage of the theater space — a three-quarter round auditorium in Calvary St. George’s Church in New York City by integrating special effects lighting and scenic and sound design (Guy de Lancey and Tye Hunt Fitzgerald, respectively) and imaginative movement sequences (Lea Fulton) to gradually let us into the petri dish experiment that is Sophie’s brave new world in the family apartment.
Sea Dog Theater describes its mission as telling “stories of alienation and reconciliation.” I will not spoil the ending here, but I will agree with the producers that “while we debate policy and legislation on a national level, we too often forget the actual people affected at the heart of it.” Watching this play is a great reminder about the human struggle of people to exist in and manage their environments. We don’t need to know much about the “rare biosphere” to appreciate the experience. The production engages all five senses to deliver the message about the biosphere and the family unit. The textbook is a grace note. This play teaches us how to appreciate Sophie’s humble struggle to live the dream. Note for parents: There is some language and brief intimate contact in this play about teenagers. Know your child.
You should go see this play before it concludes its run on May 19. Ticketing and details are available at Sea Dog Theater’s website: https://www.seadogtheater.org/therarebiosphere