First Nighter: The Civilians Confront Climate Change With "The Great Immensity"

04/25/2014 11:09 pm ET Updated Jun 26, 2014

It's taken for granted that any superior drama depends on its stakes being high. If that's the case, then The Great Immensity -- created by the always-intrepid Civilians troupe and presented at the Public after a world premiere at Kansas City Repertory Theatre -- is indubitably superior drama. Its stakes couldn't be higher: climate change and its effects on the future of humankind.

Steve Cosson, who founded The Civilians in 2001, not only directs this piece of superior work, but has also written it based on the group's research into the issue. And believe you me, he hasn't settled for a dry polemic. Instead, he couches -- you could say he disguises -- his dire warnings in a tale of suspense built around a global climate conference in Paris just days away.

Phyllis (Rebecca Hart) is in Panama looking for her documentarian (formerly of Nature magazine) husband Karl from whom she hasn't heard in several days. Attempting to coax whatever information she can from the people stationed there -- mostly scientists studying climate developments -- who'd most recently been in contact with Karl (Chris Sullivan), she learns little about him but a lot about the dicey subject.

One of those involved is Julie (Erin Wilhelmi), the spokesperson for a group of international youngsters who are members Earth Ambassadors and as such are determined to get the climate-change-implications message across no matter what it takes.

What it eventually takes for Phyllis is a hop to the Arctic where clues she's dug up -- not necessarily with help from the crowd she's interrogated -- suggest Karl has traveled. Whether she locates him and whether anyone she buttonholes genuinely cares to assist her won't be revealed here. Those are Cosson's dramaturgical secrets and need to be kept until they're given up towards the pulse-quickening end of the Great Immensity's two acts.

What can be revealed is that throughout The Great Immensity and on Mimi Lien's two-story corrugated set findings and statistics, enhanced by projection designer Jason H. Thompson's visual aids, are heaped on spectators courtesy of Damian Baldet, Cindy Cheung, Dan Domingues and Trey Lyford as any number of climate-change advocates and associates whom Phyllis and/or Karl meet.

Just know that pictures of polar bears stranded on chunks of ice are included. There's a sequence in which the extinction of the passenger pigeon is recounted as well as a discourse on the howler monkey. There's a brief lecture on the early formation of the Panama divide and its result in causing the life-giving Gulf Stream.

The speed with which the oceans are dying (the shrinking shark population is a clue) and the plight of "megafauna" comes up for discussion. You got it. Cosson and, of course, those who were interviewed for background spare little while making the cogent and pressing Great Immensity points about who and what are "breaking the world."

(By the way, before fade-out at least one explanation for Cosson's title is divulged.)

The news dispensed throughout, which won't necessarily surprise those paying attention to accumulating studies, is such that whether it's too late to do something about conditions or not remains unclear and therefore somewhat hopeful. As represented here by Julie, the Earth Ambassadors (not incidentally an active organization), believe there remains a chance for reversal but not much of one and are therefore greatly motivated to go to extremes calling attention to the plight.

There is a likely drawback to The Great Immensity's effectiveness for which Cosson can hardly be held responsible. He's preaching to the converted. To a great extent, the eyes and ears -- the hearts and minds -- he wants to reach are precisely those who are already defended against the persuasive arguments he presents.

But hold on. It's more than just possible that audiences sympathetic to The Great Immensity tenets aren't prepared -- as Cosson has one of the characters state -- to do much more than nod in agreement and then act as if that's enough. It isn't sufficient, of course, but how many sympathetic patrons will acknowledge as much and then actually do something to back up their spoken or tacit admissions?

As usual when Cosson and The Civilians undertake one of their conscientious projects, Michael Friedman supplies songs -- or what ask to pass for songs. Many of them are merely dialogue set to music. Anyone desiring to get an idea of what these ditties sound like might want to go to the top of this review and begin singing it over a repetitive musical riff of his or her devising.

There are times, though, when Friedman composes something in a traditional mode. Then, what he produces are more like anti-songs, songlets, campy pastiches. An example is the sophomoric torch song "Charismatic Megafauna," wherein Cheung gets emotional about her encounter with animals as if she's emoting over the wrong men in her life.

Oh, well, in the context of Cosson and company's impassioned and convincingly dramatic piece, it's relatively easy to grin and bear Friedman's contributions. Everything else that transpires is worth it.