Review: ‘How to Keep an Alien’ at Solas Nua

Love is unique. It is an intense bond of emotion, desire, and care between two people, deeply special to one another, that for them cannot be duplicated anywhere on Earth.

Tonya Beckman in How to Keep an Alien. Photo by DJ Corey Photography.

Bureaucracy must routinize experience. It necessarily takes a cool, distanced, rational approach to people and information according to a system of rules and procedures complying with underlying legal requirements. If such a system is working properly, efficiently and ethically, then no one coming into contact with it can be special.

The dynamic between love and bureaucracy is at the heart of Sonya Kelly’s autobiographical How to Keep an Alien, directed for Solas Nua by Tom Story. The show is fittingly described in the program as a “comedy about falling in love and proving it to the government.” The plot line is simplicity itself: In Ireland, Sonya falls in love with Kate, an Australian. Kate’s visa is expiring. The pair wants to live together in Ireland, so they must show the Irish immigration office that they are a valid couple in order for Kate to obtain a resident visa. This entails two years of collecting documents and testimonials demonstrating that their relationship is real.

Kelly, whose background is in standup as well as theater, has written a brilliant, roll-in-the-aisles funny script, full of jokes about the Irish, the oddities of theater (she met Kate while performing a Russian play with English accents in an Irish castle, while being tyrannized by the choreographer), the irony of an Australian wanting to live in Ireland deliberately, the evolutionarily retrograde practice of camping, and the quirks of dealing with officialdom. The humor is interlaced with tenderness—Sonya’s feeling of falling in love is beautifully told—and a serious undertone about the difficulties that immigrants face.

Structurally, the play emphasizes love over bureaucracy. It’s 45 minutes into the 75-minute play before Sonya’s first visit to the immigration office, an encounter pictured in a way analogous to an exceptionally long, annoying day at the DMV. Given the play’s perspective, the immigration office’s arguably defensible rationale for its documentation requirements remains, perhaps understandably, unexplored.

Kelly has toured the production throughout Ireland and the U.K., as well as New York, to well-deserved acclaim. This Solas Nua production is the first time the show has featured an actor other than Kelly herself. D.C. theater veteran Tonya Beckman performs Sonya’s role with unflagging energy, physical agility, the ability to change tone quickly but smoothly, perfect comic timing, and warmth that makes her character immediately appealing. Watching Beckman’s performance, one can’t help feeling that Kate is one lucky woman to have Sonya in her life.

We don’t get to know Kate as well. We see glimpses—Kate has a large, loving family in Queensland, she’s an actor who tours on her own, she has an off-center sensibility that connects with Sonya’s over-mock suicide humor—but the play is fully from Sonya’s viewpoint.

Nick Fruit and Tonya Beckman. Photo by DJ Corey Photography.

The play is not quite a monologue. Beckman is aided by Nick Fruit, playing a versatile collection of bit characters: the aforementioned tyrannical choreographer, a creepy immigration official, Sonya’s stage manager, a comedy club emcee, and a ballad singer, among many others. A highly flexible and adept physical actor, Fruit provides valuable opportunities for Beckman’s reactions. His bits are great fun in their own right.

There’s another character who we hear but never see, Ann Flanagan, a 19th-century ancestor of Kate. Sonya reads a collection of her letters, describing her long, daunting, disease-filled voyage of emigration from Ireland to Australia in 1862. The letters, voiced over the sound system, provide a poignant counterpoint to the frustrating but relatively straightforward bureaucratic saga of Sonya and Kate. Kelly is acutely aware that her difficulties with the immigration system pale beside those facing many would-be immigrants today. She realizes, she said in an interview, “how utterly, totally privileged we are—all we had to do was dot our i’s and cross our t’s.”  

Solas Nua’s production in the intimate space of the Dance Loft on 14th Street shines in every respect. Adding to the desk, table, and cubbyhole features of Kelly’s touring production, Scenic Designer Bridgid Kelly Burge added a backdrop consisting of memos and letters at all angles, setting the visual tone for the bureaucracy. This is a busy and effective prop show (a long scroll of rules and a paper boat representing Ann Flanagan’s voyage are especially nice examples) for which Burge is also credited. In a post-show reception, movement/artistic director Rex Daugherty admitted responsibility for my favorite set of props—paper airplanes that soar unerringly across the stage whenever Sonya is flying somewhere.

When those paper airplanes take flight, they do so to the perfectly timed jet noises of Michael Winch’s sound design. That’s just one example of the near perfection of that design. Whether a knock at the door, crowd noises in the immigration office, a shimmering glissando when Sonya is falling in love, the off-stage voice of the long-ago Ann Flanagan, or well-chosen music, the sound design helps to create a full sensory world for the show.

The same can be said for Marianne Meadows’ lighting design, which plays a variety of colors on the memo-laden backdrop; isolates one actor from the other at strategic moments; adds some comic flair, as when lights blink vigorously as Sonya is falling in love; includes not one but two disco balls; and often provides an equivalent of cinematic long or medium shots and close-ups.  

How to Keep an Alien is an emotional and theatrical delight that deserves all the audience it can get. Notwithstanding all the entertainment options available this time of year, it has my vote as a “must-see” presentation.

[Read John Stoltenberg’s Magic Time! column on How to Keep an Alien.]

[Read David Siegel’s interview with Playwright Sonya Kelly.]

Running Time: 75 minutes, with no intermission.

How to Keep an Alien plays through December 16, 2018, at Solas Nua performing at the Dance Loft on 14th, 4618 14th Street NW in Washington, DC. For tickets, go online.