Despite the bleak setup, the story of The Unplugging remains hopeful
In the near future, the end of the world has arrived. Civilization as we understand it has fallen — unplugged, as one of the main characters of The Unplugging puts it. Instead of following the downfall of the old world, the play follows two older women, one Indigenous and one white, exiled from their commune for the crime of being too old to bear children.
Despite the bleak setup, the story remains hopeful for the future and for humanity at large with its intimate scope surrounding the two protagonists, Elena and Bern. Exiled from their community, the two turn to Elena’s traditional wisdom of the land to carve out a little bit of living in a world defined by survival.
Elena and Bern have an engaging back and forth throughout the play, balancing the severity of their situation with the comfort they build with each other. Elena, played by Marsha Knight, is the more serious and reserved of the two, while Bern, played by Lois Anderson, is an extrovert driven by a need to be busy. They both balance each other’s flaws, gradually transforming from two exiled strangers to two close companions whose friendship the audience quietly ends up believing. Both actresses do a fantastic job playing off each other, and, by the end, it really does feel like they have been living alone together for months and have a great rapport with each other.
However, this balance is threatened by a stranger from the old community that exiled them. Seamus, played by čačumḥi – aaron wells, arrives at the women’s doorstep. The two have to contend with sharing their knowledge with Seamus, despite the dangers this stranger might pose to their safety. Do they have a responsibility to help this stranger? Is he a scavenger just after their food? Can they trust this stranger after their past experience with the selfishness of their old community?
Seamus abruptly enters the plot but quietly establishes a relationship with Bern. He remains a quiet, unknown element to the two women, even as Bern gets closer to him. While Elena doesn’t trust him at all, things never escalate to the point of violence. Even so, she remains distrustful, quietly. This is the best word to describe the plot of The Unplugging — quiet. Despite the post-apocalyptic setting, everything unfolds quietly. The live music in the background blends quietly into the scenes. Elena and Bern quietly become friends.
Recall the zombie fiction boom of the early 2010s. The point of those stories isn’t necessarily the horror of the zombies, but more the horror of what people will do when pushed to the brink. Can the protagonists trust this commune? Or will it turn out to be some sort of tyrannical cult obsessed with control? The threat is never just the zombies but other survivors too. The Unplugging poses similar questions to its audience — when faced with the end of the world, or simply the pressure of day-to-day survival, do you fight for yourself or do you reach out to others despite the potential danger?
This also ties into the themes around technology throughout the play. As the end of the world means that technology doesn’t work anymore, Elena and Bern’s story reveal how little people truly know about surviving. Requiring that only the “useful” live within the safety of a commune quickly transforms the scenario into an us vs. them, breaking families up and forcing Elena to part with her daughter and grandson. Who is valuable? What is valuable? And what does it mean to not be? Even Elena and Bern aren’t immune to these anxieties: both are afraid of opening up to Seamus on the off chance that he is harbouring selfish (or even violent) motives. The real question is are Elena and Bern really just entrenched in that mindset, or have they been blinded by their own anger from being kicked out of their old community and wanting nothing to do with others anymore? Or, are they just focussed on surviving, first and foremost?
The Unplugging is a quiet, intimate glimpse into the post-apocalypse, uniquely focussed on the relationships and responsibilities we have with each other. Only when we share our knowledge with other people can we survive whatever end the world brings.