"Airswimming," a revival of Charlotte Jones’ 1997 play of the same name, has great promise but leaves you wanting more in the way of content, depth, and range.
Based on the remarkable true story of two women, Dorph played by Aedin Moloney and Persephone brought to life by Rachel Pickup, institutionalized in 1920s England for bearing children out of wedlock, the play spans five decades of lives wasted due to antiquated views on social normality. To cope with the strains of incarceration, the two women create an alternate reality in which they are free of their environmental confines.
Although their indiscretionary behavior is the reason for their current predicament, this seemingly important topic is not mentioned until well into the play, which is unfortunate given that some of the play’s most poignant moments deal with Persephone and her lost child.
At first, the audience is left wondering if the two women are even aware of what behavior has led them to be hospitalized. Do they remember the births of their children or has that memory been subdued in a larger effort to escape the current reality that is intimately tied to that event?
With a sparse stage and few props, the production rests solely on the ability of the actors to draw you in to their experience. Rachel Pickup mesmerizes as Persephone, with exuberant energy she provides great range and depth to her character. Her humanizing performance draws the viewer into her story by allowing you to share in her joy and pain. There is a distinct and visible difference between institutionalized Persephone and liberated Porph, which provides much of the content and weight for the play.
Despite the rich premise and potential of this play it is one-sided, giving little development and substance to the character of Dorph. For most of the play, Dorph is depicted as a rigid, one-dimensional character with little personality or backstory of her own. Her story is secondary and less interesting, providing mostly backdrop to the story of Porph.
There is great opportunity to explore Dorph’s "transsexual" identity and military fetish, but little attention is given to her character. Essentially the entire play is about the imaginings of Porph, which makes Dorph’s attempted suicide feel misplaced and disingenuous. There was no buildup or context to Dorph’s demise so its rapid onset seems like forced and unnecessary conflict.
Dorph becomes oxymoronic towards the end. It is never explained how she ends up being at the hospital, hence the audience is left wondering how her illegitimate pregnancy came about. Dorph’s character is done a great disservice, there is room to make her more compelling and ultimately more relatable.
At times there is a parental relationship suggested between Dorph and Porph, with Dorph playing the caregiver offering to do Porph’s chores as she rests. This relationship reverses in the end as Dorph begins to crack under the strain of prolonged and unjustified incarceration. But this relationship is depicted to subtly; had this element received greater attention it would have made for a richer performance.
Miss Pickup manages to depict a childlike Porph who develops into a mature Persephone, however, Miss Moloney often misses the opportunity to showcase Dorph’s maternal capacity choosing instead to adhere to military like rigidity. Again, this unflinching portrayal of Dorph makes her suicide attempt even more perplexing. She is only seen in one dimension, so from where does this vulnerability arise? There is no premise for it.
Throughout the play, one consistent factor is Porph’s obsession with Doris Day. Besides Persephone’s supposed resemblance to Doris Day, her affinity for the American actor is never explained. When the women first entered the institution, Doris Day was not yet a household name, so why the repeated reference? In this instance, Doris Day may hold no symbolic meaning but instead be a reliable tool for occasional humor.
Set in a space no larger than a studio apartment on a college student budget, "Airswimming" is a decent attempt at capturing a complex and difficult story. The viewer gets a sense of the claustrophobia that these poor women must have experienced, however, too much is left unsaid. You are left unfulfilled, wanting to learn more of Dorph’s history and the emotional and psychological turmoil each woman faced during her time at the institution.
The viewer wonders what is the difference between Dora and Dorph? Does she not have a need for imaginary escape? Providing greater character depth and range for Dorph would have balanced the play and made for a much richer experience.
"Airswimming" runs through Feb. 3 at The Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 W 22nd Street. For information or tickets, call 212-727-2737 or visit www.irishrep.org.