Lynda Radley’s The Art of Swimming could just as easily be titled The Art of Storytelling. Her one-woman show, in Tiny Dynamite’s splendid production, serves a dual purpose. It shares both the story of Mercedes Gleitze, the first British woman to swim the English Channel (in 1927), and the playwright’s discovery of Gleitze's tale in 2015 in the Cork City Library’s dusty archives.
Both stories are gripping — full of challenges, doubts, and triumphs over overwhelming odds — and each has a distinctive voice. Gleitze’s thoughts are shared with us directly, in first person; Radley’s, however, are written in second person. Lee Minora switches from her natural speaking voice to Gleitze’s clipped British accent, and from saying “I” as Gleitze to addressing us as “you” when Radley describes her writing efforts.
Under Kathryn MacMillan’s expert direction, Minora cheerfully plunges into both characters, switching suddenly while walking among us. Sara Outing’s scenic design uses four small areas in the Headhouse Café’s second-floor party room, with Minora walking, dashing, and even swimming through the room’s 10 tables. Outing’s props are easily accessible, hidden cleverly in each playing spot. Alyssandra Docherty’s lighting is deceptively simple, artfully transforming this multipurpose room into a theater.
Minora, a warm, welcoming, witty narrator, asks us to imagine being small-town poor people seeing a celebrity for the first time.
Much of the hourlong play concerns Gleitze’s drive for record-setting endurance swimming despite facing overwhelming sexism. Her Channel triumph was questioned because another woman falsely claimed to have done it; subsequently, the media of the day cast doubt on all women.
Gleitze scrupulously documented her many other achievements, such as being the first person to swim the Strait of Gibraltar. The play is not a compendium of events, however — marriage, children, and charity work are barely mentioned — but rather a personal, utterly captivating exploration of the long-distance swimmer’s psyche.
Subtler, but no less intimate, is Radley’s struggle to write Gleitze’s story despite a suffocating office job. Gleitze’s descriptions of swimming “a straight liquid line” despite distractions from without (jellyfish, cold, currents) and within (hunger, boredom, doubt) mirror the writer’s solitary efforts, which, in second-person address, become ours. Daniel Ison’s live musical accompaniment on guitar and piano, as a continuous storytelling partner, enhances the juxtaposition and introspective mood, taking us deeper into both characters. The Art of Swimming amuses, mesmerizes, and stays with us long afterward.
You should know this part by now
Tiny Dynamite’s A Play, A Pie and A Pint series is their version of the Oran Mor Theatre’s PPP in Glasgow, Scotland. One-act plays, usually an hour or less, are served with a pie (pizza here) and a pint (beer or soda — Headhouse Café’s vanilla stout is very nice) for an affordable price ($20) at a nontraditional time. In Scotland, it’s lunch; here, 6:30pm. Tiny Dynamite also offers a dessert performance — of, yes, pie! — on Saturdays at 9:30pm. The Art of Swimming is Tiny Dynamite’s seventh PPP. Next up is One-Night Stands, readings of short plays about love and sex for Valentine’s Day (February 14 to 16).