Theatre Review: ‘The Catastrophist’ streaming at Theatrical Outfit

William DeMeritt (Nathan) in The Catastrophist. (Photos courtesy of Marin Theatre Company and Round House Theatre)

Theatrical Outfit is presenting a work of cinematic theatre called “The Catastrophist,” written by Lauren Gunderson and directed by Jasson Minadakis. It is running through March 21; please see the Outfit’s website below.

Many Atlantans are familiar with Ms. Gunderson, the Atlanta born and San Francisco based writer who has become the most produced playwright in America, except Shakespeare (she’s probably tired of hearing that; maybe not).

In Atlanta, we have been treated to such fine works as “Silent Sky,” “The Book of Will,” the “Christmas at Pemberley” series, “Ada and the Memory Machine,” and others. Most of these plays have been performed at Theatrical Outfit, with whom she has a special relationship.

“The Catastrophist” was commissioned by Round House Theatre in Maryland and the Marin County Theatre near San Francisco where Ms. Gunderson is playwright-in- residence.

At the beginning of the pandemic, Ms. Gunderson, like most artists, was somewhat nonplussed. But it just so happens that in real life she is married to Nathan Wolfe, a virologist once named one of TIME Magazine’s most influential people for his work on Ebola and swine flu. He proposed pandemic insurance long before COVID-19, but no one listened. They’re listening now.

Ms. Gunderson herself recruited New York theatre and film actor William DeMeritt to play her husband. This choice was crucial. Mr. DeMeritt is skilled, meticulous, funny, and very charismatic. To me he becomes a sort of Everyman: He is our sole human link to this largely unknown (to most) world of viruses, animals, and the entire universe of cause and effect in which we are living.

Nathan (Mr. DeMeritt) stands on a stage, empty seats in the audience, and talks about “good science—what’s true—what’s really going on.” The setting is San Francisco, 2016, but that changes. Nathan is a scientist, but he’s also a human being with a past, a family, and hopes and dreams as we all have.

Please do not think of “The Catastrophist” as merely a scientific treatise; it is a drama in which not only Nathan but all of us, by implication, play vital parts. When Nathan passionately talks about the effects of pandemics, he says we’re not just talking about the loss of life; but the loss of livelihood; how the pandemic cuts off the planet from its own future. There are tears in his eyes at various moments; after this past year, all of us understand exactly what he’s talking about.

He also talks quite a bit about his father, his wife, his children—again, the play is not all science and viruses. Ms. Gunderson’s Nathan touches the germ of life (no pun here) and celebrates it with verbal beauty. “One’s own future is the hardest to see.”

We must give credit to lighting designer Wen-Ling Liao, composer and sound designer Chris Houston, director of photography and editor Peter Ruocco, and of course director Minadakis.

Earlier I called the piece cinematic theatre, and it is. I’ve been in love with live theatre too long not to realize that if the live actor William DeMeritt were in front of us, one’s response is even deeper. But this is a work that I would urge you to see. In less than 90 minutes, Lauren Gunderson’s play has the potential to take you somewhere else.

For information on how to stream the play, visit theatricaloutfit.org.

Manning Harris

Manning Harris the theatre critic for Atlanta Intown.