Cyndi Williams' study of a subterranean retirement community during a catastrophe has promise but isn't always clear

Subterranean blues: (l-r) Babs George, Molly Karrasch, and Mary Agen Cox
Subterranean blues: (l-r) Babs George, Molly Karrasch, and Mary Agen Cox (Courtesy of Christopher Loveless)

Austin Playhouse at Highland Mall, 6001 Airport, 512/476-0084
Through May 4
Running Time: 1 hr., 50 min.

If you know boom!, Peter Sinn Nachtrieb's recent hit play, you'll likely hear its echoes in local playwright Cyndi Williams' Roaring, receiving its world premiere from Austin Playhouse. In both dark comedies, the action is set underground as a catastrophic event occurs, and those in the subterranean setting wonder whether they're the only people left alive on (or in) Earth. Williams and Nachtrieb both mine tension from this dramatic situation: the need to escape a confining environment, the need to know about the outside world, and a door that prohibits exit.

But while the plays share narrative ingredients, Roaring's premise is unique: Most of its characters reside at the Roots, a nursing home in the shape of a spiral beneath the earth. The more critical one's condition becomes, the further from the surface one is moved – a system all too familiar to the residents, including Smart Joan (Mary Agen Cox) and Johnny (Huck Huckaby). But not everyone lives there. Claustrophobic reporter Bobby (Stephen Mercantel) has come to interview the oldest woman alive, while teenaged Riley (Claire Grasso) is visiting her great-grandmother, Pretty Joan (Babs George). At the helm of this "pod" are Eli "the Medical Guy" (J. Ben Wolfe) and manager Melanie (Hildreth England). Molly Karrasch plays the mysterious Lil, alternately seen and unseen by those around her. Then there's Lillian (Margaret Hoard), who has a past of her own to share.

The setup has promise, and there are beautiful scenes, to be sure (including one in which former physics professor and Nobel laureate Smart Joan recalls a passionate address she delivered as a doctoral candidate). But Roaring could have used a bit more workshopping before its first full production. The storytelling and dramaturgy are at times confusing, especially when technical elements aren't fully utilized to support the narrative. For instance, it's often difficult to discern fantastic elements from realistic ones – which wouldn't necessarily be bad if that distinction didn't seem necessary for making the story clearer and easier to follow. There's also some magic realism (with magic a motif throughout), but it's tough to make sense of early enough in the proceedings. And as with much untested comedy, some one-liners land with the audience and others don't.

Still, Williams' play has the potential for a life in the world beyond, which may make it worth the experience.

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Roaring, Austin theatre, Cyndi Williams, Austin Playhouse, boom, Mary Agen Cox, Huck Huckaby, Babs George, Molly Karrasch, J. Ben Wolfe, Hildreth England, Stephen Mercantel

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