Chantal Bilodeau’s “Sila” ambitiously attempts to explore the impact of climate change on a Canadian island perched on the edge of the Arctic Ocean. Underground Railway Theater’s atmospheric staging of this world premiere creates an evocative backdrop for a script whose reach exceeds its grasp.
The title “Sila” refers to the Inukitut word for “breath,” and at its best, Bilodeau’s story captures the fragility of life. Szu-Feng Chen’s imaginative design of shimmering curtains, combined with David Roy’s dreamy lighting, erase any barriers between humans and animals as well as folklore and science, and “Sila” soars when it focuses on the essential interconnectedness of everything on Earth.
“Sila” opens with Leanna (Reneltta Arluk), an Inuit community activist, offering a lyrical description of the world in which she lives, where “life and death walk hand in hand like giggling teenagers.” As quickly as Leanna casts a romantic spell, it is snapped by the arrival of Thomas (Robert Murphy), a Canadian Coast Guard officer determined to assert Canadian sovereignty in the lucrative oil drilling industry. This fundamental tension could be enough for a play on its own, but Bilodeau adds two more plotlines that ultimately overwhelm her theme rather than illuminate it.
The strongest plot revolves around Leanna and her daughter (Sophorl Ngin), a spoken word poet and single mom struggling with a troubled teenage son. Leanna is so committed to representing the cause of her community of Nunavut on Baffin Island, she neglects her daughter and grandson, with devastating results. In a parallel story, we also follow a mother polar bear (also Ngin) who struggles to teach her child (a luminous Theresa Nguyen) to survive in an environment that is changing so rapidly they can’t keep up. David Fichter’s life-size puppets are both charming and ferocious, frightening one scientist so much he slips and falls into the chilling Arctic waters.
A third plotline follows Jean (Nael Nacer), a French-Canadian scientist who is being wooed by Thomas to do some research for a company planning to explore for oil. When Jean turns Thomas down, Thomas strands him on Baffin Island, preventing Jean from getting to his research facility. While he waits, he hires Kuvageegai (Jaime Carrillo) as his guide, who finally takes him out on the ice where Jean encounters the polar bears and takes his Arctic plunge.
He miraculously emerges from the icy water unscathed by the near-death experience, but Kuvageegai tells him he’s angered the sea goddess. That anger manifests itself at a human cost in a drawn-out scene recounted via phone conversations in the Coast Guard office with Thomas and his junior officer, Raphael (the energetic Danny Bryck doing a painfully overdone Canadian accent).
“Sila” is dramatically compelling when it zeros in on individuals — both human and animal — and their everyday challenges of raising children and maintaining family ties, but it is too often diverted by a need to lecture the audience. The simple stories of individuals in the midst of a situation are always more powerful than a recitation of facts and figures.