Review: Hope Repertory Theatre's 'Natural Shocks' is a Powerful, Gripping Experience

When Lauren Gunderson, the most often-produced playwright in the United States (save for Shakespeare), wrote “Natural Shocks" in 2018, gun violence, inexplicably, wasn’t anywhere near the crisis it is just five years later in this country. 

But this is a play about a tornado. 

Or is it?

What’s most compelling about this gripping one-woman show, currently in production at Hope Repertory Theatre, is its unreliable narrator, Angela. She’s charming, funny, real. She’s locked herself in her basement for threat of a coming storm and she’s terrified. That much we know. But she repeats herself, doubles back on herself, seems to forget her train of thought but then picks up again with great vitality as she delivers her monologue. 

She tells us flat out that lying makes things easier—and leaves it to us to question the validity of that claim. 

She’s an insurance agent and therefore an obsessed expert on risk. She’s obsessed with dice, with games of chance, and she makes a compelling case for why the world needs to be taught risk literacy, “the science of survival.”

All of this makes sense in the context of a woman weathering a tornado in her basement, with a copy of “Sense and Sensibility” in case she gets bored, she jokes, as well as a gun in the closet.

That makes us uncomfortable, doesn’t it, she asks.

Her monologue meanders to and fro, peppered with memories of her mother, with whom she had a strained relationship, of trips with her to Disney World, of how she implored Angela not to marry her now husband. 

If she has a husband, why isn’t he in the basement with her, we wonder.

Things start to not add up. She’s enamored with Hamlet and it becomes clear she’s amid her own “To be or not to be” soliloquy, and we are very much her audience—and her indecision is a morality tale for our benefit. What carries on for an engaging, witty hour or so builds quickly to a shocking climax that leaves the theatre utterly silent. A shock. But is it natural?

Gunderson’s script is utterly poetic and deeply political, but more as an aftereffect than a driving force in the capable hands of Director Michelle Aguillon and with the incredible performance from DeAnna S. Wright.

Wright’s storytelling is moving, her character profound. She speaks with her body as well as her voice, and her inner conflict is palpable even while she’s making us laugh with genuine humor. Even though we don’t fully comprehend what she knows through what she’s lived until the very end, her wisdom feels hard earned, evidenced through quirky quips that balance the light and the dark. She makes the most of this script, milking it for nuance.

The show works beautifully in the intimate Jack Miller Recital Hall, with its impeccable acoustics and intimate black box space. Leazah Behrens’ set evokes a lived-in, unfinished basement. Adiah Hicks creates the sounds of an impending storm as well as the haunting irony of Judy Garland’s “Get Happy” on repeat before curtain up. Amber Whatley gives the little basement windows changing hues like that of a tornado sky—or a bruise as it fades. The subtleties are powerful.

Trigger warnings abound for this production, on the program and in the lobby, and this heightens anticipation and disorientation as we are rapt by the telling of this tale. Like the hardest truths and biggest questions, it’s both metaphor and hard fact. “Natural Shocks” straddles the two with grace to powerful effect.

Natural Shocks
Hope Repertory Theatre
July 8-15