Inis Nua, one of Philadelphia’s most consistently fine theater companies, defines its mission as presenting contemporary theater from the British Isles. To me, though, their plays are notable also for exploring the lives of outliers. Artistic Director Tom Reing has introduced a number of plays that debuted at fringe festivals, and predictably there’s often a sharp, dark edginess. In much of their work, an equally piercing sense of compassion shines through.
These qualities are very much present in Stef Smith’s Swallow, an Edinburgh Fringe hit here in its American premiere. Three characters—Anna, Rebecca, and Sam—begin by telling the audience a little bit about themselves. The stories are intriguing, off-putting, and sad—these are lives on the margins. At first, the delivery is in monologues; we will come to discover connections between characters (Smith’s segues are elegant), but in the truest sense, all three are isolated.
To say too much more would spoil it—Swallow thrives on the slow introduction of details, a process that holds the audience’s attention. As we’ve come to expect of Inis Nua, design work (scenery by Meghan Jones, lighting by Angela Coleman, costumes by Natalie de la Torre) is excellent.
I have more mixed feelings about Claire Moyer’s direction. There’s a lovely fluidity to the staging, and initially I appreciated the quiet, subdued rhythms—they seem right for the characters, and give the actors an opportunity to work in quiet, highly realistic, detail. Ultimately, though, the action seems so damped down that rather than drawing me into the story, I felt it at held at arm’s length.
In any case, among the three narratives, one significantly outshines the others. Rebecca and Sam’s stories, despite Smith’s obvious sincerity (and earnest acting by Felicia Leicht and Samy el-Noury), feel scripted and familiar. Anna’s narrative, on the other hand, brims with energy and originality; I hung on each detail, many of them completely unexpected. In part, it’s because Smith’s writing for Anna is better; but it’s also that the actor who plays her, Corinna Burns, is simply extraordinary—every moment, every image comes vividly to life.
Some of Swallow is worthy but inert. But Anna—and Corinna Burns’ great performance—will stay with you.
Swallow runs through May 14. For more information, visit the Inis Nua Theatre website.