Arts theater review

Meet Augustine Early, your resident journalist sleazebag

Ronan Noone brings back his satirical play The Atheist

8052 atheist play
Georgia Lyman in the Boston Playwright’s Theatre’s The Atheist
Kalman Zabarsky

The Atheist
Performed by the Boston Playwright’s Theatre
Written and directed by Ronan Noone
Starring Georgia Lyman
Jan. 19, 2017 to Feb. 5, 2017

The Atheist’s Augustine Early (Georgia Lyman) is not a pleasant character. She is a journalist with dubious morals, and her strong opinions are rarely politically correct. Her work ethic is shoddy at best. Perhaps her only redeeming quality is a commitment to telling the truth. Even then, she does so only when it benefits her.

Although Augustine is the only character in this piece, Lyman’s spectacular performance blows away any doubts that another character is needed. As scriptwriter Ronan Noone noted in the Q&A session following the performance, Augustine was originally written as a male character, but his decision to cast Lyman did not change the script and Augustine’s inherent characterization remains the same.

Augustine monologues about her failed romances and the sudden breakthrough in her career that changed her life. Augustine becomes famous for exposing a scandal involving the mayor, albeit through somewhat unethical means. Meanwhile, Augustine’s newfound girlfriend Jenny brings more trouble than she expects, and the two subplots intertwine.

Despite the title, Noone’s play is less about the battle between science and religion and more about Augustine’s internal conflict with morality. She cynically drawls and lashes out at the people in her life, teetering between impulsively falling in love with some of them and outright destroying the lives of others. In the opening of the second act, Augustine discusses God and lashes out once again, but like the dying bird that Augustine finds later in the play, she seems to be more of a desperate child who can’t find her way out.

Lyman’s Augustine manages to be remarkably unlikeable yet extremely compelling. Her witticism, “Who needs sources when it’s true?” and repeated declaration of “color, flavor, and spice” can be amusing while still subtly satirizing the often skewed field of journalism. We empathize with Augustine not because she has a hidden heart of gold, but because of the few times when her brazen opinions could have been our opinions and her choices could have been our choices too--from Augustine’s burst of anger when she witnesses her girlfriend's infidelity to Augustine’s decision to see her mother again after the former is vilified in the media.

After the play in the Q&A session, Noone and Lyman discussed the making of the play. Noone explained that the color palette of the set design--black, white, grey, red--was conscious of newspaper colors. Black walls with words written in white chalk. A table covered with red tablecloth and alcohol. The cigarette that Augustine pulls out only to never light it. But perhaps the most noticeable prop is the video camera that projects Augustine onto a screen behind her as if she was in an infinite mirror. She is egotistical, yet behind the brazen facade, Augustine might have lost herself in the distorted media, reflecting across multiple mirrors yet never quite being the same each time.

Noone and Lyman further discussed the social warning that the play presents against the media. Lyman noted how pervasive the media is in our lives and that the media we consume can literally become who we are. An audience member commented that after Augustine had dismissed God, perhaps Augustine became God himself in the eyes of the public. It’s an interesting and ironic take on the titular theme.

The play is a snide reminder about integrity and moral responsibility to journalists who possess the power to control the flow of information. The media’s relation to the public has not changed in the past decades. Lyman’s decision for Augustine to exit the stage without a bow is a nice thematic addition to her already complicated character and her unhailed journey of speaking the truth.

Perhaps most suitably, The Atheist begins and ends with the phrase “I want you to get mad.” Before the performance, Augustine scrawls these words on the stage wall with chalk. After Lyman has left the stage, a clip of the famous scene from the film Network (1976) is projected, with the quote, “Well, I'm not gonna leave you alone. I want you to get mad!”

We might not be able to change the media. But we can get mad. And that counts for something.