Theater review

When a former student tells women’s studies professor Maxx Cheevie they’re pissed off about the lack of response after a woman said she was sexually assaulted in her dorm room, Maxx sympathizes.

After all, the wheels of university bureaucracy turn slowly, if at all, and as a survivor herself, Maxx (Mari Nelson) knows all too well how elusive justice can be.

No, the student clarifies. They’re pissed off at Maxx.

In Jenn Ruzumna and Lisa Every’s “The Fifth Wave,” now on stage at West of Lenin through Feb. 27, a feminist icon is confronted with a choice.

It’s been 25 years since Maxx secured her legacy with a blistering speech reclaiming her power in the immediate aftermath of being brutally assaulted, and the university is trotting out laurels in her honor. But students are concerned about the here and now, and they want Maxx to step out from behind the comfort of her lecturer’s podium and rally with them for action. But she’s not sure she should.

Macha Theatre Works presents the world premiere of “The Fifth Wave,” directed by producing artistic director Amy Poisson. The show was originally scheduled to open in March 2020, and it finally makes it to the stage with its original cast almost wholly intact.

That cast does impressive work throughout, led by a phenomenal Nelson as an innately decisive woman suddenly wracked with indecision. As her husband, Jo, Hugo Munday takes a mostly oblivious supporting character and complicates him, lending a hint of simmering resentment beneath a bumbling exterior. Leah Jarvik, as daughter Jess, also delves below a sunny surface to unpack her character’s own struggle: She’s not convinced the man accused of the assault (Samuel Edgren) is guilty.


The quandary of that unknown truth isn’t central to Ruzumna and Every’s script, which has a tendency to surface difficult issues and leave them unresolved. There’s a perhaps fatally odd choice here: They relegate the alleged victim to offstage status, while Edgren’s purported abuser gets several scenes to state his case. This imbalance makes Maxx’s dilemma feel merely abstract when the play clearly wants it to feel like a flesh-and-blood intrusion into her ivory-tower existence.

Ruzumna and Every have created a polished piece of work, with scenes that crackle with energy. But the whole affair is a little too snappy. Running 80 minutes with no intermission, “The Fifth Wave” has some vague ideas about what the next iteration of feminism might look like, but they’re more platitudes than provocation.

Still, Macha’s production is striking from the get-go, with a sleekly foreboding set of black panels and white parallel lines by Parmida Ziaei. The opening scene sees Maxx reciting her famous speech, almost religious in cadence, while an ensemble of actors, credited as Furies (Sarah Burfoot, Jasmine Lomax, Maddy Nibble, Aly Patterson, Ashley Salazar) gather at her feet, ensconced in black fabric.

Director Poisson deploys these less literal moments judiciously, and aided by moody lighting design by Dani Norberg and pulsing sound design by Lisa Finkral, builds to a satisfying emotional crescendo. Nelson, so adept at communicating a complex inner life with just a glance, knows when to go big, and she hammers home the feeling of a woman trying to forge a new path.

“The Fifth Wave”

By Jenn Ruzumna and Lisa Every. Through Feb. 27, Macha Theatre Works at West of Lenin, 203 N. 36th St., Seattle; masks and proof of vaccination required; $10-$100;