Off-Broadway Review: 'The Ruins of Civilization' at the Manhattan Theatre Club

Asya Danilova

  • OnStage New York Critic

Set “somewhere in England in the future” this sci-fi dystopia will make your heart skip a beat quite a few times because of the close resemblance to today’s world issues and the remarkable gracefulness with which it is executed. 

The Ruins of Civilization features a couple, Dolores (Rachael Holmes) and Silver (Tim Daly). He is a writer, she is a stay at home writer’s wife filling in as the writer’s assistant if needed. They live in a beautiful home and are eligible for the full government scholarship but only if Dolores will leave behind her foolish fantasies of having a baby. A social worker, Joy (Orlagh Cassidy), is making her routine visit to ensure it.   

“How often do you fantasize about holding your baby?” “How often do you fantasize that your baby will find the solution to save the world?” – Joy follows the standard questionnaire. “Never”- Dolores tries to sound firm and cheerful. But we hear how she is torn apart from the inside especially after the trip, which she and Silver took to some third world country. That unnamed county is about to go underwater as a result of some global environmental catastrophe. The humanitarian catastrophe is inevitable because no country is taking the population as refugees so all of the people there are likely going to die. 

Tim Daly, Orlagh Cassidy and Rachael Holmes / Photo: Joan Marcus

Tim Daly, Orlagh Cassidy and Rachael Holmes / Photo: Joan Marcus

As much as the people of that country are scared of being swallowed by the “water dragon”, the population of England is terrified of being flooded with the “incomers”.  The global situation is recreated in the living room of Silver and Dolores when the incomer, Mara (Roxanna Hope), enters their lives.  A comfortable home becomes an arena of exercising power, authority, judgment, treachery but also kindness, forgiveness and love.   

Beautifully written by Penelope Skinner, The Ruins of Civilization voices the concerns that the westerners from economically developed countries had for decades and that are especially relevant now in the context of the wave of immigrants from Syria to Europe. By setting the play in the future, Skinner not only emphasizes the universal relevance of the issue but also removes the immediate pain and anger of the concrete geo-political situation. It allows the writer to bring our attention the interaction between characters but very soon we realize how tightly the personal and political are intertwined.              

In a society where reproduction is not allowed, women are given the illusion of choice. Instead of sterilizing them, government encourages women to take daily “pills”.  What a twisted form of humiliation. What a cruel form of population control. People are made to feel that they are making decisions when, in fact, they are put in a situation where they have no alternative. Because women are the ones carrying babies they are blamed and punished for getting pregnant, therefore they live with constant fear and oppressed desires.  

Tight in the grip of the government reproductive policy, Dolores doesn’t even realize how much her husband mirrors the manipulative government at home. The director Lea C. Gardiner unveils the dynamic in the relationship between the couple scene by scene. Every turn of the head, every move around the room is meaningful and yet doesn’t look forced. This might sound like an obligatory quality of modern drama theater, yet it is not easy to achieve the balance between articulate gesture and the ease with which it is executed. Bravo to the cast and the director for their elaborate mise-en-scènes!

Finally, the design gives a nice framing to the The Ruins of Civilization. Futuristic scenic design by Niel Patel features a cool minimalistic interior with glass top tables and a metal kitchen island. Dishes and appliances are hidden in the wall cabinets, which are carefully arranged and warmly lit from the inside. The motive of hidden things and the contrast between the surface and the inner life will come up in the play a lot. 

The costumes by Jessica Pabst are topped with identical white raincoats for each of the characters. Uncanny uniformity as well as a “biohazard suit” style reminds us about the ecological instability in the world of the play and hints of the nearing catastrophe. Sounds of falling rain between the scenes (music and sound design by John Gromada) continue this theme. 

The Ruins of Civilization is produced by Manhattan Theater Club and is running in New York City Center (Stage II) at 131 W 55th street, New York trough June 4th. More info and tickets here