Founding artistic director Tom Reing has a knack for finding powerful little plays that entertain, affect, and illuminate, and he’s done it again with Inis Nua Theatre Company’s American premiere of SPINE, by English playwright Clara Brennan. The 70-minute solo show, which debuted at the 2014 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, offers a personal paean to the importance of books, a political diatribe on the closure of libraries during England’s times of economic austerity (and, by extension, America’s period of financial crisis and budgetary cutbacks), and a panegyric on the fundamental human need for emotional and intellectual support. And it does so with earthy humor and a whole lot of heart.
Emily R. Johnson (a member of Found Theater Company, which presents consistently outstanding ensemble-devised work each year in the Philadelphia Fringe Festival) gives a break-out performance as Amy, a troubled foul-mouthed teenager from West London, “born without a sense of deservedness.” An outcast from her family, friends, and school, she develops a life-changing relationship with Glenda, an eccentric old bibliophile who is as fiery, outspoken, and defiant as Amy, but who has had the advantages that the young woman lacks.
Under the sensitive, humorous, and perfectly-paced direction of Claire Moyer, Johnson recounts Amy’s story in a tour-de-force first-person monologue, assuming a spot-on working-class English accent and imitating the speech and demeanor of Glenda and the other significant characters in her hard young life. She is brimming with emotion, sparkling with wit, and wracked with vulnerability as she commands the stage and captivates the audience with the fluid naturalism of her every word and movement. Slowly but steadily, right up the play’s poignant and uplifting conclusion, Johnson manifests Amy’s development under the kind and savvy influence of her elder, as the whole world opens up to her, her confidence grows, and her language begins to change from the f-bombing vulgarity and common acronyms of the digital age (“LOLROTFWMLITA”) to the poetic expressiveness of the classics, through the power of books. “They’re emblematic of all that’s good in civilization,” Glenda tells her. Beautiful.
An effective interior design (set by Meghan Jones, props by Jennifer Burckhardt of Avista Custom Theatrical Services) captures the look and feel of Glenda’s traditional home (“stuck in Victorian times,” wisecracks Amy), and cleverly reveals the surprise that awaits her young protégé. Typical post-modern attire—jeans, sneakers, black jacket—define the contemporary teen (costume by Rebecca Kanach), while skillful sound (Ashley Turner) and lighting (Amanda Jensen) serve to elucidate her story.
In case you hadn’t noticed, the playwright, star, director, and designers are all women. Kudos to all of them, and also to Reing, for putting together a top-notch all-female production team for this quirky and heartwarming work about the growth of a girl through the impact of a woman. Beautiful.
[Louis Bluver Theatre at The Drake, 1512Spruce St.] February 17-March 6, 2016; inisnuatheatre.org.