Encore Michigan

Detroit Rep presents William Downs’ “Asking Strangers,” which could be sub-titled “The Big Think”

Review March 14, 2022 David Kiley

The best part of Asking Strangers: The Meaning of Life, a new play by William Missouri Downs presented by The Detroit Repertory Theatre, was the conversation I had afterward at a good Noodle restaurant with a friend about what we actually think about the meaning of life.

In a sea of jukebox musicals, revivals and sit-com level plays as we come back to theatre post-Pandemic, thank goodness for plays like this that truly make you think and discuss serious topics after the show.

The playwright has said in interviews that he was moved to write the play during the pandemic when people seemed to be re-assessing their lives, how they live, how they work and what they want out of life.

Downs told his alma mater, Northern Michigan University: “The pandemic has caused a lot of people to hit pause on their lives and think about their meaning of life,” said the 1977 NMU graduate. “I’ve realized that people seldom think about the true meaning of life, unless they are forced to stay home and think about it.” 

The play begins with a writer who meets the ghost of novelist/philosopher Franz Kafka. After that connection, a chain of events forces the ensemble cast to confront the meaning of life in the age of Covid. Through these random encounters, the play calls into question whether the characters can justify and understand their existence, or whether life is just one long Zoom meeting interrupted by Amazon and Doordash deliveries.

The cast–Harry Wetzel, Jonathon Jones, Hallie Bee Bard, Tamara PiLar, Miles Bon–does a more than solid job delivering the writer’s words and ideas amidst a very simple set. Directed by Leah Smith, the company brings to life Mr. Downs’ vision, with the humor and light touches that make this concept play work without a real story to pull you along, and so as not to be obnoxious in posing the questions.

There is much evidence that people are seriously questioning the processes, burdens and true aspirations of their lives: many are rebelling against returning to the office, seeking remote or hybrid jobs; many have been quitting their jobs (The Big Quit); many have balked at returning to low-paying and tip-dependent food service jobs; many have exited from traditional, organized religious communities.

The pandemic has disrupted far more than the macro-economy or politics, it has disrupted how we think about life, and Downs’ new play takes a big swing at capturing what we might come to call “The Big Think.”

Week of 11/28/2022

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