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The set of Inis Nua Theatre’s Meet Me at Dawn, now getting its US premiere at the Drake’s Louis Bluver Theatre, seems simple enough at first glance: a wet, sandy beach, dominated by two massive boulders. Curtains hang overhead that look like black angel wings. In the beginning of the play, Robyn (Hannah Gold) and Helen (Jackie Soro) wash up on this shore, a la Robinson Crusoe or other classic shipwrecked stories. Helen is elated, caught up in the adrenaline rush of being alive; Robyn just feels sick.
The pair are a Scottish couple who live together on the mainland. Helen is more optimistic and headstrong than her partner, but both are sure there’s a way off the island and back home, to the dog they’ve taken on even if he isn’t actually “theirs.” But as it becomes clear nothing is what it seems, and sound designer Eliana Fabiyi’s simple string score becomes increasingly foreboding, the audience begins to perceive this isolated backdrop as something stranger than another Scottish coastline. Director Sam Tower’s production only enhances this mysterious, magical feeling, with the help of atmospheric lighting by Isabella Gill and Jill Keys's set.
The talented Gold and Soro carry the entire one-act performance on their own. Luckily, the pair have an intimacy and chemistry that is especially palpable in such a small theater. Whenever they squabble or embrace, the two of them feel like a couple who know each other all too well.
Where Meet Me at Dawn falls flat is the play itself. I won’t wade too far into spoiler territory, but Zinnie Harris’s work joins a trend of recent contemporary art exploring love, trauma, and immense grief. At best, these movies and shows and books can be revelatory. At worst, they’re tearjerkers, demanding that you be moved thanks in part to the mind’s ability to empathize and associate real emotion with fiction, even if the story doesn’t actually work. It was easy to hear the sniffles and snuffles building among the audience during the last few minutes (I know I teared up), and in that sense the production is a success.
Yet I also felt a certain emptiness afterward, probably because Harris doesn’t have much else to say here beyond, “Losing someone you love is very, very hard, and that makes people sad.” (At 30 years old, I can’t say I greet this as a revelation.) In the events of the play, Robyn and Helen never truly undergo any major changes, as a couple or individually. There isn’t even much rising tension within the story until Robyn starts having visions. The end of the play stirred me, but I didn’t gain any real catharsis or greater satisfaction from watching it. What I knew and felt long ago had merely been confirmed.
I can’t say I didn’t enjoy the show, given the quality of the direction and actors, especially Gold’s demanding, emotionally gripping presence as Robyn. It’s just a shame the depth of the writing can’t match what everyone on stage is putting into the material. There could be a longer version of the play that fleshes out the story’s main themes and is able to reach a greater, stronger conclusion. Unfortunately, this isn’t it.
What, When, Where
Meet Me at Dawn. By Zinnie Harris, directed by Sam Tower. $15-$30. Through March 5, 2023, at Louis Bluver Theater at the Drake, 302 S. Hicks Street, Philadelphia. (215) 454-9776 or inisnuatheatre.org.
Masks are required in the theater.
The Drake is a wheelchair-accessible venue with gender-neutral restrooms.
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