“Your status has expired.”
For Canaan Muponda, these are the most fearsome words imaginable. A refugee from Zimbabwe, Canaan has spent the last five years living in Liverpool with his young son. Now, in order to avoid deportation back to Africa, he has to prove to Martha Sullivan, a government caseworker, that staying in Britain is a matter of life or death. But Martha has a lot of questions about why Canaan left Zimbabwe in the first place. He says he was targeted because he was rebelling against Robert Mugabe’s oppressive forces, but is there more to the story? Canaan has all the answers, but while he tells Martha of his innocence, he’d rather talk in parables than deal with hard facts.
Lizzie Nunnery’s play The Swallowing Dark deals with some intriguing concepts: What are the limits of compassion? How can a Western nation provide justice to everyone who needs help when its resources are stretched to the breaking point? And how can Martha turn her back on Canaan’s family when she feels guilt over a crime her own brother was involved in?
Yet despite its sympathetic characters and its relevant subject matter, The Swallowing Dark never quite catches fire. Nunnery’s play gets bogged down in some rather dry interviews, and its detours into African parables can be hard to follow. The play’s repetitive structure – we get several recaps of the death of Canaan’s wife and the crime that involved Martha’s brother – doesn’t help. Neither does director Claire Moyer’s stagnant staging: much of the play consists of the two actors glaring at each other across a table, though Martha does occasionally come downstage to speak some extended monologues directly to the audience.
Walter DeShields’ deliberate, dignified performance establishes Canaan as a well-rounded character, but his impassivity makes Canaan hard to connect with. In a speech that comes across as the playwright’s statement of purpose, Canaan tells Martha that he will not allow himself to get overly emotional while describing his plight. “A person is not really sad unless they’re crying,” he declares, but he won’t fall into that trap: “I don’t need to perform for you.” That’s an admirable attitude, but while I didn’t want to see him cry over his predicament, even a hint of emotion would have helped me to care about Canaan.
Jessica M. Johnson fares better as Martha, showing how conflicted she is by the multiple predicaments she is facing. She also plays Canaan’s wife during flashback scenes, transitioning seamlessly between her roles. Both actors use clear, convincing accents; Leonard Kelly is the Dialect Coach.
Natalia de la Torre’s informal costumes and Amanda Jensen’s muted lighting add to the restrained mood. Elizabeth Atkinson’s excellent sound design uses ambient noise to establish the locale, whether it’s traffic from the streets of Liverpool or gunfire from the fields of Zimbabwe. And Meghan Jones’ set design nicely blends the characters’ two worlds: while for Martha’s government office has an authentic-looking bureaucratic blandness, the view out its window reveals an umbrella thorn tree on the serene African savannah. These characters may be in England, but Africa dominates their thoughts.
The Swallowing Dark is never less than interesting, but it misses its chance to become a fully engrossing drama.
Running Time: 80 minutes, with no intermission.
The Swallowing Dark plays through October 22, 2017 at Inis Nua Theatre Company, performing at The Louis Bluver 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.