Swallow, by Scottish playwright Stef Smith, was first seen at the Edinburgh Festival in 2015. This American premiere is produced by Inis Nua Theatre Company (which specializes in works from England, Wales, Ireland and Scotland) and dazzles in its simplicity. The convincing acting, streamlined set. and compelling script make for a refreshing evening of theatre.
There are only three characters: Anna (Corinna Burns), Rebecca (Felicia Leicht), and Sam (Samy el-Noury), all of whom have personal issues to confront and resolve. Anna has been a recluse in her apartment for two years, and her imagination runs wildly and destructively. Rebecca feels insecure, dejected and depressed due to her former relationship with her ex, Christopher. Sam, who was born Samantha, is transgender and struggles to definitively be himself.
The superb performances by all three actors are delivered with Scottish accents. Claire Moyer is the stage director and Leonard Kelly is the dialect coach. The characters switch back and forth between monologues and direct conversation. There is considerable symbolism in Anna’s speech, which gives a poetic feel to the play. Corinna Burns, as Anna, deserves extra mention and praise. Anna is both funny and tragic. In addition, she is a difficult character to interpret believably since her actions and ranting sound like someone who is mentally ill, but she has not completely lost touch with reality. There is a thread of sanity still there. The humor in her discourse lightens the mood but not the seriousness of her mental state. Rebecca and Sam have their problems too, but both appear to be in command of their faculties and do engage with the world outside their flats.
Each character is utterly unique, and the differences between them are enhanced by their positions on stage, as well as their gestures and movements. For example, Moyer places Anna on a raised platform meant to represent her flat. This vantage point — of being higher and very visible to the audience, yet “invisible” to the other characters (and the rest of their world) — ironically helps construct and reinforce the recluse’s isolation.
The set, designed by Meghan Jones, is plain and gray, yet attractive. It is abstract yet does not distract — it provides a clean and unobtrusive space for the ensemble and puts the focus on their acting. One can easily imagine what Anna’s apartment looks like, merely based on her monologues. And seeing Rebecca sitting on the steps is all that’s needed to convey that she is in her apartment on a lower floor. I did not miss a hyperrealistic set or props. Angela Coleman’s lighting and Natalia de la Torre’s informal costumes add to the play’s understated atmosphere.
Swallow is not to be missed by those interested in transgender issues, or by fans of contemporary British theatre. Note that on May 3rd, Inis Nua is presenting “Setting the Scene,” a pre-show discussion about the play’s themes.
Running Time: One hour and 15 minutes, with no intermission.
Swallow plays through May 14, 2017, at Inis Nua Theatre Company, performing at The Proscenium Theatre at The Drake — 302 South Hicks Street, in Philadelphia, PA. For tickets, call the box office at (215) 454-9776, or purchase them online.