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Theater Review: ‘Airswimming’

Insanity or injustice?

By Diana Barth Created: January 24, 2013 Last Updated: March 29, 2013
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(L–R) Dora (Aedin Moloney) and Persephone (Rachel Pickup) entertain themselves in poignant ways over the 50 years of incarceration in an institution for the criminally insane. (Carol Rosegg)

(L–R) Dora (Aedin Moloney) and Persephone (Rachel Pickup) entertain themselves in poignant ways over the 50 years of incarceration in an institution for the criminally insane. (Carol Rosegg)

NEW YORK—In England in the early 1920s, two women have been incarcerated in an institution for the criminally insane. This U.S. premiere of Charlotte Jones’s delicate and intimate “Airswimming” is produced by The Irish Repertory Theatre in association with Fallen Angels Theatre Company.

Dora’s (Aedin Moloney) great sin is that she likes to dress as a man and smoke cigars. Persephone (Rachel Pickup) has borne a child out of wedlock via an older married man. Her own father, aided by the family doctor, has seen to it that she is put away.

Although the two women are not very much alike, they become strongly supportive of one another. Dora, confined two years earlier, tries to teach Persephone the ropes—not to make trouble that would excite the interest of or interference from the authorities.

In fact, the play is a two-hander; we see the pair making do with a pretty bleak future in the offing. They must do their chores, clean the tub, the floor. Dora is the tougher of the two and takes Persephone under her wing.

Over time, they invent alter egos for themselves. Persephone becomes Porph, while Dora is Dorph. Porph delights herself with memories of movie star Doris Day, singing her praises, even singing her songs, and extolling Day’s virtues for having devoted herself to taking care of animals.

Porph dons a Doris Day wig and prances about wearing it. In between these fantasies, the once budding debutante keeps hope alive that her father will soon come for her, and that she will celebrate the elegant party at a fancy hotel that had been promised her. Gradually she faces the fact that he is never coming for her.

(L–R) Rachel Pickup (Persephone) and Aedin Moloney (Dora) in Charlotte Jones’s “Airswimming.” (Carol Rosegg)

(L–R) Rachel Pickup (Persephone) and Aedin Moloney (Dora) in Charlotte Jones’s “Airswimming.” (Carol Rosegg)

Dorph’s greatest interest seems to be in learning the act of trepanning—drilling holes in one’s head allegedly to relieve pressure.

Time passes—close to 50 years—and only via bureaucratic doings are they soon to be released. The two have prepared themselves for this long awaited chance by practicing their self-invented skill of “airswimming,” in which they make swimming movements in midair. The final scene, in which they face the audience and start their ascent outward, is sweet and poignant.

The play, at first seemingly light and even silly, gradually takes on more powerful meaning. Are these women actually insane? It doesn’t seem so. Certainly there is nothing criminal in either their thoughts or deeds. Can such miscarriages of justice still take place? Given the state of things, one unhappily feels that it may be so.

Director John Keating has created a remarkably sensitive ambience, with Moloney, with her curt masculinity, and Pickup, the picture of femininity and vulnerability, appearing ideal for their roles. One could not imagine better.

Melissa Shakun’s set design is appropriately claustrophobic.

A welcome addition to the Irish Rep’s long list of interesting and unusual theatrical offerings illustrating the Irish and Irish American experience.

Airswimming
The Irish Repertory Theatre
132 West 22nd Street
Tickets: 212-727-2737 or visit www.irishrep.org
Running Time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Closes: Feb. 3

Diana Barth writes and publishes New Millennium, an art publication.

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