“Pilgrims”: New play asks questions about replicating utopian genocide

CHICAGO—Visionary corporate executive Elon Musk, founder of Tesla and good old-fashioned rocket ship maker Space Ex, is preparing to bring people to Mars by 2020. Ikea has been working with NASA to develop an effective furniture line for the Mars lifestyle. In short, the future is now.

Given that the impulse to colonize Mars is motivated by the fact that our collective irresponsible behaviors are making planet Earth increasingly less habitable, the question we need to ask more urgently, perhaps, is “Will the future be new?” We might find a new planetary address to inhabit, but will we, as a collective global culture, change our self-destructive behaviors to create a sustainable and peaceful way of life?

This question is underscored with psychological intensity in the current world premiere production of Pilgrims at The Gift Theatre in Chicago’s Jefferson Park neighborhood. Written by Claire Keichel and co-directed by Michael Patrick Thornton and guest artist Jessica Thebus, this sparse play features two characters, whom we don’t know by name but only by numbers displayed on a digital board to the side of the stage, heading to another planet where a colonization effort is already underway. The two characters are effectively confined together as roommates in a chamber resembling the standard room at a mid-range hotel chain. The entirety of the play unfolds in this room, with occasional visits from the space ship’s robotic stewardess, Jasmine, played with a combination of humor and creepiness by Brittany Burch, who provides service that is attentively chipper yet finally unsatisfying because of her lack genuinely human response.

The male, played by Ed Flynn with a laconic intensity that teasingly reveals his multiple and not fully charted layers, initially introduces himself as a contractor who is returning to the planet. We later learn, though, that he is, in fact, a soldier grappling with post-traumatic stress disorder as well as a hefty heaping of guilt and remorse for the violence he committed in the war against the “aliens” on the planet. He is returning, we learn, with the aim of redeeming himself by exploding the whole project. The “girl,” as she is identified in the program, played by Janelle Villas with a remarkable mixture of willful innocence, daring, and depth, is fleeing her own troubled past that, we learn only by suggestion, seemed to include suffering myriad forms of abuse in a troubled family life.

Each character has their own share of unaddressed “issues,” of which we learn only through suggestions and glimpses revealed through slips or rare moments of honesty in the dialogic tug-of-war between the soldier who does not want to engage (and had insisted on a single room) and the energetic, even frenetic girl, something of a chatty Cathy, who wants to engage only too much. Both the soldier’s reticence and the girl’s volubility are means of escaping from themselves and not confronting or fully acknowledging and addressing in a healthy way the traumas that drive their actions and interactions.

As Sigmund Freud argued in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, we are unconsciously compelled to repeat or recreate the conditions or experiences of violence and abuse we have suffered and repressed from memory until we claim and address the traumatic experience responsibly and therapeutically. This repetition compulsion, as Freud terms it, is a more powerful drive in us than the pleasure principle.

The play effectively dramatizes this dynamic Freud observes. For example, the soldier in moments reflects upon the killing of the aliens occurring in the colonial conquest, reminding us that the utopian quest of America’s original pilgrims to set up a New Jerusalem, a genuinely Christian paradise in a new and supposedly uninhabited world, became a violent conquest, undermining the optimistic vision and setting in motion the recursive genocidal behavior that characterizes U.S. historical development. In many ways, this removal to Mars reproduces the same violent culture of colonization, calling into doubt the possibility of achieving a truly new and better possible world.

This futility of achieving the possible is enacted quite sharply in a scene in which the girl, often trying to seduce the man into a sexual relationship, is raped by the soldier. She later says, “It’s fine.” The soldier, in emotional disarray, asserts that they just can’t tell a story and make it go away. We see here perfectly the way our culture normalizes violence, failing or refusing to properly call it out and identify it, and thus damning us to reproduce it over time.

The drama is full of these complex moments that ask us, out of the interactions of these two characters in a confined space, to question the larger cultural reproduction of violence and inhumanity that will undermine any utopian effort until we confront our collective psychological trauma. Indeed, at the end of the play, spurred by the girl’s persistent encouragement that she and the soldier play roles, the two find themselves playing the role of English settlers of old, playing Pilgrims and hence destined to recreate genocidal America.

For progressives, especially those on the American left who have historically been resistant to engage psychoanalysis, seeing it as a bourgeois, highly individualized practice, this play does a remarkable job of addressing enormous political issues in a small and intense psychological space, showing us the need to delve into our individual and collective psychologies to address fully the barriers to social change, lest we continue to reproduce the same social relationships and behaviors.

The play reminds me of the need to revisit such utopian thinkers on the left such as Herbert Marcuse and Ernst Bloch, who each worked off of Freud and psychoanalytic traditions in theorizing a way for us to process our collective traumas and move forward to a new and humanly gratifyingly society.

Bloch, for one, moved through and beyond the concept of the unconscious to imagine the not-yet-conscious; but we can only get there by processing the old, the encrusted past that holds us.

What Pilgrims shows us as well is the need to move beyond the familiar that has us captured and which we unconsciously reproduce, and to seek the foreign and new territory—to, quite literally, embrace the alien.

Pilgrims plays at the Gift Theatre through July 30 at 4802 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago 60630. For further information and tickets call (773) 283-7071 or their website here.


Tim Libretti
Tim Libretti

Tim Libretti teaches in the English Department at a public university in Chicago where he lives with his two sons.