Theatre / By Orla O’Sullivan
“Airswimming” * Written by Charlotte Jones * Directed by John Keating * Starring Aedín Moloney and Rachel Pickup * The Fallen Angel Company at the Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22nd St., NYC * Playing Wednesdays through Sundays, extended through Feb. 17 * Contact: 212-727-2737 or online at www.irishrep.org.
How is it possible not to be submerged by the most depressing life circumstances? asks “Airswimming,” which opened at the Irish Repertory Theatre on Sunday.
“Mummy said you must never say never,” chirps Persephone (Rachel Pickup) one of the play’s two characters, adding plaintively, “but you can imagine never in here. I’ll never dance again—the weight of it all kills me!”
“Here” is a mental asylum and Persephone and her cellmate, Dora (Aedín Moloney) find themselves there because they had children outside of wedlock in 1920s England.
This was the era of the Magdalene laundries, state-sanctioned, clergy-run workhouses for “fallen women,” previously fictionalized in an Irish context in the play “Eclipsed” and the 2002 film “The Magdalene Sisters”.
“Airswimming” focuses on the coping mechanisms two completely opposite types of women use to rise up when dragged down to the emotional deep.
One is swimming. Since they never leave their cell—at least within the 75-minute confines of the play—this is all mime, or airswimming. And it is synchronized swimming, now that this odd couple has acclimated to each other after years of close confinement. The play was inspired by a true story.
Dora is a repressed, dry-witted, intelligent lesbian, probably lower middle class. Persephone is a flighty, upper-crust beautiful blonde with wit to match the stereotype. Her heroine later on is Doris Day; Dora’s is Joan of Arc, together with a whole succession of women who went into battle.
One wonders how Dora wound up conceiving, though incest is mentioned in the play. Persephone’s story parallels her namesake from Greek mythology, who was taken by Hades, God of the underworld. Her father had her locked away after she was impregnated by one of his friends, a man 30 years this ingénue’s senior.
The play opens with Persephone’s arrival to the asylum in 1924. She condescends to the inmate she finds, repeatedly distinguishing between herself and Dora and emphasizing that she is merely passing through. It ends in 1972, by which time she is inseparable from Dora.
The scenes move very well back and forward in time to show Persephone’s transformation from denial to resignation and assimilation.
Crucially, she and Dora indulge each other’s fantasies, the coping mechanisms that keep them almost sane.
In a beautiful scene, Persephone imagines herself at a ball, “I’m in a full-length shimmering gown, hair-up, a handheld, diamante cigarette holder… ” Dora, stumped, cannot go there. Persephone enters her world. “Oh, come on Dora! What regiment?”
Both actresses are very credible characters and the isolation of their world—or partially overlapping Venn-diagram worlds—is palpable.
Kortney Barber’s sound design adds the evocative touch of regularly played footsteps echoing on hard surfaces, footsteps that won’t stop at this cell, and instantly echo familiar prison or courthouse scenes.
What feels less solid is the broader context. How are the inmates so au fait with the outside world when no engagement is suggested?
Playwright Charlotte Jones seems not to have quite the ear for period-piece language that, say, fellow Briton Julian Fellowes of “Downton Abbey” fame has. Speech patterns in “Airswimming,” her first play, feel at times too contemporary for the 1920s. Dora uses modern-sounding slang (for example, “carpet muncher”) well before the 1970s and Persephone talks quite early on of the Doris Day Pet Foundation, which wasn’t established until six years after the play is supposed to end.
Still, “Airswimming” is a quirky, moving, funny and provocative play. And it has lovely singing. Persephone’s convincing Doris Day impersonations that grate on Dora are both soothing and sinister, as the lyrics successively speak the unspeakable, from “Que Sera, Sera” on to “Once, I Had a Secret Love.”