The U.S. premiere of Lizzie Nunnery's The Swallowing Dark, by Inis Nua Theatre Company, explores immigration, a timely topic both in the United Kingdom and the United States. Nunnery uses one case to examine the role of stories in our memories and our lives.
No permanent status
Canaan (Walter DeShields) achieved asylum in England five years ago after escaping Robert Mugabe's violent Zimbabwe regime with his son. Now his status is being reassessed by newly assigned "case owner" Martha (Jessica M. Johnson), who is sympathetic to his plight but responsible to regulations and superiors. "This is shitty," he tells her, and — after turning off her recorder — she replies, "I know it is."
Meghan Jones's institutional-looking set, with its large conference table and two chairs, is also used as Martha's home and as Canaan's homes in Liverpool and Zimbabwe. Upstage center, a window reveals an idyllic view of an African plain. Like Nunnery's often poetic script, the set lacks specificity and identity at its most important moments, instead presenting a collage of images that don't add up to something definitive.
Tension simmers but doesn't build much in this 80-minute drama of short scenes and occasional confessional monologues. Flashbacks feature Johnson as Canaan's late wife; Martha's monologues parse a violent event her teenage brother was somehow involved in. Different versions of that story emerge, while Canaan's tale of his torture in Zimbabwe matches, word for word and pause for pause, what another case owner recorded five years ago. We receive no explanation of either.
A story is a story is a story
Perhaps that's the point: stories are difficult to pin down, either for factual accuracy or deeper meaning. "You know what I know but you want me to say it again?" Canaan asks in dismay. Each telling, at a different time and in different circumstances, inevitably differs from the others; too much accuracy may be another form of lying. Canaan tells a gruesome children's story about birds, then dismisses it by saying it's just a story — yet it haunts him.
Ultimately, we expect stories to have definitive resolutions, and that's where The Swallowing Dark falters: since we're never sure what's true, nothing has much meaning.
That's despite winning performances from DeShields and Johnson, who master accents well (Johnson shifting adroitly from Martha's Liverpudlian to the wife's Zimbabwean) and suggest each character's memories of suffering with compelling pathos. Elizabeth Atkinson's sound design rattles with machine-gun fire, plus echoes of Canaan's recurring bird images. The Swallowing Dark portrays immigration's bureaucratic tangles well, but tantalizes with vague theories about truthfulness.