Bridging perspectives, onstage and off

Inis Nua Theatre presents Sonya Kelly's Once Upon a Bridge

3 minute read
Two men in suits stand at the sides of a woman in a suit, all straight-faced at the viewer, purple and pink tones the shot
Inis Nua Theatre Company celebrates its 20th Anniversary season with the East Coast premiere of 'Once Upon a Bridge' by Sonya Kelly. (Photo by Wide Eyed Studios.)

As a couple, and a couple of actors, Brett Ashley Robinson and David Pica have walked the halls of the Roman senate and frolicked in the English countryside. In Once Upon a Bridge at Philadelphia’s Inis Nua Theatre Company, the newly married couple switches things up, with Robinson behind the scenes.

Real-life collaborations

The intimate and story-centric Once Upon a Bridge is a natural fit for Inis Nua: it’s a contemporary work by Irish playwright Sonya Kelly, drawing inspiration from actual events in London in 2017. Commissioned by Ireland's Druid Theatre, the play was live-streamed from Galway during the pandemic, and Inis Nua's production marks the East Coast premiere of the piece.

“It's a drama, but at the same time is really inviting the audience to activate their imaginations and to engage with the three characters,” Robinson explained. “The play is a little bit of a chamber piece.”

The production marks the fourth collaboration for the couple: Julius Caesar and The Wild Duck at Quintessence Theatre Group and The Merry Wives of Windsor at Delaware Shakespeare are the others—but the first time Robinson is directing Pica, her husband of over a year.

“It’s great to see Brett in a different mode of collaboration than the actor,” Pica said, celebrating his partner’s directorial ability to know when to hold back or unleash impactful choices.

Notably, it was Inis Nua artistic director KC MacMillan who suggested Robinson consider Pica. Robinson was surprised but then conceded Pica's talents aligned with the unnamed man role due to his ability to bring an easy charisma to complex characters.

Before and after

Based on the shocking real-life incident where a jogger pushed a woman into the path of a bus, Once Upon a Bridge intertwines the lives of three strangers. It unfolds with an emphasis on before and after: introducing the characters and their ambitions, depicting the pivotal moment, and exploring the transformation of the characters in the aftermath.

The play's basis in reality and the recent past created a unique challenge for the theater-makers involved. As such, dramaturg Meghan Winch provided a comprehensive packet detailing the historical context of the play in 2017, including speculations on the likely professions of characters involved and the media response to the incident.

The play’s setting perfectly teed up Robinson’s directorial inclination to activate authentic reactions in her actors without making assumptions.

“I'm always trying to create a space where actors can be themselves and approach the material as themselves in those circumstances. We have millions of stories inside of us. We just have never experienced those things because we've never been put in those circumstances,” Robinson said.

Playfulness and paying attention

Joining Pica onstage are actors Walter DeShields and Alice Yorke. Due to the play's language complexity and monologue-heavy nature (the original live-streamed production featured three actors performing directly to the camera in a film-theater hybrid), the cast rehearsed for a week in December and then resumed rehearsals in mid-February.

The result is something small but mighty, Robinson and Pica agreed, where the actors work to individually build relationships with the audience. While the play is a thrilling drama, it also holds moments of humor. As they reveal their perspectives and side of the story, each character works to charm and delight listeners through direct address.

“All of that language, it really allows a bit of playfulness,” Pica said.

Playfulness, yes, but also paying attention. In navigating life after a life-altering incident, Pica said, the play invites audiences to investigate humanity and question how individuals move forward, even when a tidy resolution is out of sight.

What, When, Where

Once Upon a Bridge. By Sonya Kelly, directed by Brett Ashley Robinson. $18-$30. Through March 24, 2024, at the Louis Bluver Theater at the Drake, 302 S Hicks Street, Philadelphia. (215) 454-9776 or


The Louis Bluver Theatre at the Drake is a wheelchair-accessible venue with private all-gender restrooms. The performances on Wednesday, March 13, and Wednesday, March 20, will be sold at 50-percent capacity with required masking.

Sign up for our newsletter

All of the week's new articles, all in one place. Sign up for the free weekly BSR newsletters, and don't miss a conversation.

Join the Conversation