Theater Takeaway: Erik Ehn’s 10,000 Things

A super-talented cast buoys this befuddling world premiere.

I wanted to love 10,000 Things. Here’s why:

  • Playwright Erik Ehn, a Brown University professor and advocate for the arts in Rhode Island, is well known for interesting work.
  • I enjoy nearly everything produced by Josh Short and his team at the Wilbury Theatre Group. (Proof here and here and here.) It’s easy to root for the little theater when it’s so good all the time.
  • 10,000 Things was described, rather ambiguously, as “an exploration of the limits of mercy and extent of distraction in a busy age.” Amen. Count me in.

Alas, I felt a little betrayed by Ehn’s world premiere, commissioned by Wilbury’s New Works program and onstage through Sunday. The story is a straightforward one. A troubled six-year-old with an absentee family bolts into the woods after school. The conditions are well suited for tragedy: his older brother forgets to pick him up; his mom is jailed for drunk driving; his sister is dropping acid; his father is sleeping with the local barmaid.

Ehn’s theatrical toolbox includes hand and shadow puppets, as well as a haunting score by Maya Solovey. (Her take on the gospel tune, “Angel Band,” is incredibly beautiful. It took a lot out of me not to sing along.) There’s even a little dancing.

But despite its strengths, 10,000 Things leaves a trail of breadcrumbs in a wide arch around the plot line — like taking 295 when you’d rather be in the heart of the city. This route left me guessing, roughly every ten minutes, if I really knew what was happening.

Towards the end, Ehn throws us a bone: a slapdash wrap-up session where a cop (played by Jeff Hodge) recounts all of the major plot points of the play. Phew, I get it. But I also feel kind of dumb for needing that validation. Time to leave. But wait: There’s a pardoned prisoner squatting in the town’s old jail. Let’s wrap that up first. Okay, now it’s time to leave.

Don’t get me wrong: 10,000 Things is, by no means, an hour-and-a-half wasted. I'd still recommend it, strictly on the back of the indulgent dinnertime conversation it inspires. It continues to befuddle and madden and shift forms in my mind.

The cast members, across the board, deliver outstanding performances. Christine Treglia plays Chloe, a nanny who drunkenly neglects the infant in her charge while her own kid perishes alone in the woods. Treglia’s take on her character is convincing and nuanced.

In his Wilbury debut, Taliq Tillman — better yet, a bandage on Tillman’s hand — plays Duane, Chloe’s six-year-old son. He also plays Royce, the eldest son. A junior in high school, Tillman moves and sings and executes his lines with the fluidity of a practiced actor.

And the shadow puppets, constructed via small lights by the cast, amplify scenes by juxtaposing silhouettes of the actors’ faces on large-scale sheets of paper or the theater’s ceiling.

All of this must be part of Ehn’s grand plan: Distract us enough, and we’ll be as lost as Duane. Or, rather: We’ll understand why Duane gets lost in the first place. But the rouse, although beautifully executed, feels a little like a highfalutin betrayal — an experiment where we lean in to listen and furrow our brows and wonder what the hell that acid trip was all about instead of developing real fondness for the characters.

Not everybody loves live theater for the gut-punch. There are other reasons to go: expert lighting, interesting turns-of-phrase, unusual props, moving music, prodigious local talent. And 10,000 Things offers all of those things.

But I go for the gut-punch. And when a kid dies and I barely feel the crescendo — well, that’s not an experiment I’d like to suffer again.

 

Erik Ehn’s 10,000 Things is onstage now through October 30. Tickets are $15–$25. The play is the first of three productions from Shadows in Shadow, a collaboration between the playwright and the Wilbury’s New Works program, Studio W. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit thewilburygroup.org.