‘Sila’ Strikes an Emotional Bull’s Eye at Central Square Theater (4.5 Stars)

Sila (breath) by Chantal Bilodeau. Directed by Megan Sandberg-Zakian. Presented by the Underground Railway Theater at the Central Square Theater, 450 Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge, through May 25.

In Inuit culture, Sila is the energy and breath that connects all life, upholding one’s spirit, the weather, and the universe. So reads the program notes for Sila, which takes place on Baffin Island in the Canadian territory of Nunavit. The play addresses the issues of climate change, loss, and connectivity through a wonderfully woven, emotionally compelling narrative that includes an activist and her daughter, a climatologist, two members of the Coast Guard, an Inuit guide and two polar bears.

Leanna (the regal Reneltta Arluk) is an activist working hard to preserve the Inuit environment and traditions. Despite her love for her land, she is rarely home – a fact that her daughter Veronica, ferociously and movingly played by Sophorl Ngin, resents. Veronica wants to leave the territories, as her teenage son, Samuel, seems bored and adrift with the lackluster education he’s receiving. Meanwhile, Jean, a climatologist dealing with losses of his own, is stranded in Nunavit because of weather conditions. The versatile and emotionally honest – no one inhabits a scene better than he – Nael Nacer plays Jean, whose frustration mounts as he tries to control his situation. Two Coast Guard workers, played well by Robert Murphy and Danny Bryck, are responsible for some of the show’s lighter moments. In addition, two polar bears, wonderful puppets with soulful faces that are skillfully manipulated by actors and two puppeteers – are roaming through the arctic, trying to stay safe as the mother bear teaches her cub to hunt. Melting ice sets them on a course that has tragic consequences for both of them.

Chantal Bilodeau manages to write a play that is as emotionally engaging as it is smart. As climate change wreaks havoc on the Arctic, the lives of the characters are thrown into tumult as well, paying the price for their carelessness. The weather, along with Veronica’s son Samuel, Samuel’s drunken father, Jean’s ex-wife Liz, and a man named Johannes who is trapped at sea are just some of the characters in the play who we never see but are brought to life by the effect they have on the actors. Spoken word poetry, as well as phrases in French and Inuktuit, is incorporated into the script, but very naturally with little self-consciousness. Bilodeau never loses sight of the emotional crux of the piece, which moved this reviewer to tears.

The set, designed by Szu-Feng Chen, conveys the white vastness of the Artic itself in a way that is simple yet elegant and a perfect backdrop for the stunning lighting design of David Roy. Pieces of furniture placed onstage throughout allow it to become a club, a living room, a Coast Guard Station and the sea, without any clumsy set changes.

In the end, the Sila reminds us that although we are rent from the land and the people we love and lose, we are all still connected. For more info, go to: http://www.centralsquaretheater.org/