In “The Hollow Men,” T. S. Eliot famously recast modern expectations for the apocalypse by proclaiming that the world would end “not with a bang but a whimper.” While the style of Wallace Shawn’s The Designated Mourner is far from that of T. S. Eliot’s poetry, the sentiment Eliot expressed so memorably makes an apt description of what happens to the world occupied by these three characters: Jack (Brian Harwell) occupies the position described in the play’s title, as he loses both his wife, Judy (Jenna Scanlon), and his father-in-law, Howard (Tom Hinshaw), to a mysterious sequence of mass arrests and political purges in the unnamed police state where The Designated Mourner takes place. The problem is — or at least one of the problems is — that Jack doesn’t always sound so mournful about it. His whimpering, which now and again rises to the level of a scream, revolves around not the loss he feels in their absence, but rather the strange ambivalence he felt when they were still around. Playwright Shawn artfully taps into the myriad of ways that contemporary society licenses, perhaps even encourages, resentment and its uglier, more feral German cousin, schadenfreude.
The performances in this Designated Mourner are uniformly spectacular. Shawn’s distinctively digressive manner demands the utmost focus from actors and, under the skillful direction of Maurice Lord, Harwell and company deliver the goods. The play’s many cerebral epiphanies bubble and burst with astonishing vigor. It’s the end of the world as we know it, and it feels fine.