Review: ‘Spine’ at Inis Nua Theatre Company in Philadelphia

When we meet Amy in the opening moments of Clara Brennan’s Spine, she’s homeless, bewildered, and defensive. She’s a London teenager with a violent temper and a surly attitude. Over the course of a little more than an hour, we see Amy open up and grow up. And as we see Amy learn to depend on others, we also see how she is redeemed and transformed by books and their capacity to instruct, transport and inspire.

Emily R. Johnson as Amy in Inis Nua’s 'SPINE.' Photo by Katie Reing.
Emily R. Johnson as Amy in Inis Nua’s ‘SPINE.’ Photo by Katie Reing.

Brennan tells a story that touches on radical politics and female empowerment – but beyond the hot-button issues, it’s a touchingly human, and humane, story. And it’s told superbly in this American premiere by Inis Nua Theatre Company, thanks to sensitive direction by Claire Moyer and a captivating and ingratiating performance by Emily R. Johnson.

Rejected by her family, fired from her job at a hair salon, and dismayed by her disastrous first sexual experience (“I’m not doing that [again] until I’m like 26 at least”), Amy has resorted to supporting herself by petty theft… which, it turns out, she’s pretty bad at. She shows up at the home of an elderly woman named Glenda to rent a room, and the relationship between the two women has a rocky start (“she’s judging me like all the rest”). But the two end up bonding, and Amy becomes a de facto caretaker as Glenda slowly slips into senile dementia.

Amy soon learns that she and Glenda both have a propensity for stealing, but for different reasons: as shortsighted local governments throughout Britain have shut down libraries (sometimes in the middle of the night), Glenda has been sneaking in and making off with their contents. Glenda has turned her vast, neglected home into a library, but she’s not taking books for her own use; as she sees it, she’s keeping a part of Britain’s shared culture alive. “It’s our legacy,” she tells Amy. “We’re keeping them stored until such a time as they are safe again.”

The government doesn’t see any value in libraries, but to Glenda, libraries are invaluable: “They’re emblematic of all that is good in civilization… free knowledge.” In the end Amy is inspired by, and empowered by, Glenda’s forward-thinking mindset. “They want girls like you to stay silent,” Glenda tells her, but “the only place for silent is a library.”

Brennan originally wrote Spine as a 15-minute scene, and later expanded it. Even at just over an hour, Spine seems padded; some of the stories, like the one about Amy’s drunken fight with local “bully girls,” don’t really add much to our understanding of her. But Spine manages to seem fresh; Amy learns important lessons, but there’s nothing didactic or shopworn about the way those lessons are taught. Amy is just as cynical at the end of Spine as she was at the beginning, but Brennan manages to transform her by letting her see beyond her limited worldview. Spine is a smart play about a young woman who’s got more to contribute to the world than she thinks.

Johnson gives Amy a gruff demeanor that suits the character perfectly. It may take some time for you to get acclimated to the thick, working-class accent Johnson uses; I misheard Glenda’s name as “Linda” for much of the night. But once you get past that, Johnson’s performance is absorbing. Her manner is punkish but not off-putting; her jaw is clenched tight, but there’s a softness to her expressions and a sensitivity to her tone that will draw you in. Spine is full of vivid (and sometimes crude) language that lets the audience envision every setting Amy describes, and Johnson is able to hold the audience’s attention throughout, making unseen characters come to life. And Johnson gives Amy a restless physicality, slithering catlike across the stage as she recreates Amy’s shadier escapades.

Claire Moyer’s direction creates a pace that never feels rushed, and the storytelling flows skillfully. Moyer shrewdly uses changes in Amanda Jensen’s lighting, plus the judicious use of pauses (many of them for Johnson to sip water from cups placed discreetly around the set), to delineate scenes.

Costume Designer Rebecca Kanach provides a layered look that makes Amy appear tough while avoiding rebellious cliché. And Meghan Jones’ set allows for a wonderful moment when Glenda’s library is revealed.

(Incidentally, it’s so nice to see that the creative team for Inis Nua’s production of Spine is made up of talented women -which proves, I suppose, that someone may have been taking Glenda’s inspiring, empowering words to heart.)

At the beginning of Spine, Amy has no direction, but we see her blossom before our eyes. And we see Emily D. Johnson blossom too, giving a raw, unaffected performance that’s sure to rank among the year’s best.

Running Time: 70 minutes, with no intermission.

Emily R. Johnson as Amy in Inis Nua’s 'SPINE.' Photo by Katie Reing.
Emily R. Johnson as Amy in Inis Nua’s ‘SPINE.’ Photo by Katie Reing.

Spine plays through March 6, 2016 at Inis Nua Theatre Company, performing at The Louis Bluver Theatre at The Drake – 1512 Spruce Street, in Philadelphia, PA. For tickets, call the box office at (215) 454-9776, or purchase them online.