Theater review by Jenna Scherer. Irish Repertory Theatre. By Charlotte Jones. Dir. John Keating. With Aedín Moloney, Rachel Pickup. 1hr 20mins. No intermission.
How do you stay sane in an insane asylum? Charlotte Jones’s two-hander gives pretty much the opposite answer that, say, Sartre might: Hell isn’t other people—other people are the only thing keeping us from dropping off the edge of the abyss.
Staged in Irish Repertory Theatre’s subterranean black-box studio, Airswimming follows two women who haven’t been so much failed by the system as utterly betrayed by it. Both have been incarcerated in a British hospital for the criminally insane on the grounds of “moral imbecility”—Dora (Moloney, serviceable) for dressing up like a man and smoking cigars, and Persephone (Pickup, charismatic) for having a kid out of wedlock. They take to their sorry lot in life with old-school English pluck, passing the time playing make-believe (including the titular virtual water ballet) and reminiscing about their lives before the slammer. But as the decades slide past, from the 1920s to the ’70s, the two begin to crack under the strain.
Originally staged in 1997, Airswimming was Jones’s first play, and it feels insubstantial. (She’d later make a name for herself with the much more interesting Humble Boy.) These ladies seem pretty okay with being locked up for life, polishing the same claw-foot bathtub for 50 years straight. It’s sweet to watch Dora and Persephone putter around, supporting each other and singing songs to pass the time (Pickup does a spot-on impression of Doris Day), but the stakes are almost nonexistent. The few moments of real sadness, luminously performed by Pickup, show us what the piece could’ve been if Jones had dug just a little deeper.—Jenna Scherer