It’s New Year’s Eve, 2094 — more than a year has passed since the fall of the United States. Control of the East and West Coasts has been lost. That’s the world we find ourselves in as Theroun Patterson’s play The Cannibals begins. Set in a remote cabin in the Rocky Mountains, a family of survivors is trying to recapture some semblance of their old lives. They’re having some old acquaintances over for dinner. But as fighter jets scramble overhead and what sounds like gunfire echoes in the distance, it slowly becomes clear that there is no going back to how things were.

“Every couple of years, I write something that comes out of my concern for where we are as a society, where we are as an American society, what that identity really means, and what it means if something threatens it or takes it away,” says Theroun Patterson, the Atlanta playwright who penned The Cannibals. “That’s kind of where the play came from. I’m always wondering what are the circumstances that would lead us to come face to face with who we are as a society and what happens if all the old rules don’t apply anymore.”

Winner of Best New Work from What If? Productions’ 2015 Playwrights Festival, The Cannibals makes its world premiere in Charleston on July 1. As part of this year’s festival, What If? will also be hosting an afternoon of live readings on July 2 to showcase 2016’s crop of new finalists. The series of staged readings will be followed by the 24-Hour Playhouse, during which a writer, director, and group of actors will present an original work created in just 24 hours. Patterson will be on hand following the premiere of The Cannibals to discuss the work along with the show’s cast and director Kyle Barnette.

Born in Savannah, Ga., Patterson was raised in a military family and lived in Summerville during his high school years while his stepfather was stationed at the Charleston Air Force Base. Now living in Atlanta, the playwright began his theater career as an actor before deciding to dedicate his talents to creating original works. Joining up with Working Title Playwrights in 2009, he wrote four new plays in his first year with the group. With The Cannibals, Patterson examines what happens if you can no longer hold on to what makes you human.

In the play, we find Jacob and Therese North, a strained couple trying to hold on to normalcy in the new world. Therese, a former lawyer, finds herself growing more and more frustrated in the wilderness. The two share a secluded cabin home with a clone of their son, David, who lost his life in battle. Over the course of the play, the clone slowly begins to take on more and more qualities of the original David, but cannot shake the memories of past deaths.

“He begins to change because of what he is. He was always going to evolve at some point, but the assumption was that he was going to eventually become the David of old,” says Patterson. “He becomes something different, something in between, a sort of hybrid person-clone that has old memories, new memories. He’s sort of a new type of person going into a new type of future.”

In addition to the obvious anxieties that the family displays, they are met for dinner by the Grissom family — made up of Banner and Frankie and their 20-year-old daughter Celeste. The mystery that runs throughout the play is how these characters knew each other before society fell apart and what grudges still linger between them. The story builds slowly, ratcheting up the tension until the characters reach their breaking point and their true, underlying natures are revealed in an all-out struggle to the death.

“You’ve got to build the characters’ story arcs so that people stay interested as they’re listening to the play. I don’t want to give people their back stories in the first 15 pages and then follow the simple rules of climax and resolution. I don’t find those kinds of plays enjoyable and I get bored if that happens because now I’m just waiting for the play to end, so I tried my best to not give everything away,” says Patterson. “I tried my best to make sure that an audience is going to stay interested throughout, that we’re finding things out all the way through the play. I think it allows you to create fuller characters without you necessarily having to reveal everything.”

He adds, “There’s a lot in this play. There are a lot of technical elements that go into this place, so I’m excited to see how they pull it off. There’s a lot of sound. There’s a big fight scene in the play. There’s a great love story. … So I’m excited to finally see all of it on stage.”