Questions of sanity and self-preservation make Irish Repertory Theatre’s two-hander a thoughtful drama worth wrapping your head around.

Aedin Moloney and Rachel Pickup in <I>Airswimming</I>.
Aedin Moloney and Rachel Pickup in Airswimming.
© Carol Rosegg
Is “insanity” a tangible thing, or the category for people who fall inconveniently outside the spectrum of what is socially acceptable? The Fallen Angel Theatre Company thoughtfully examines this question in their intimate production of Charlotte Jones’ Airswimming, now running at the Irish Repertory Theatre.

Airswimming follows Dora (Aedin Moloney) and Persephone (Rachel Pickup), two inmates at St. Dymphna’s Institution for the Criminally Insane in England, over a fifty-year period, during which the pair has a lot of time to kill. They wash their cell, tell stories, and occasionally go “airswimming,” a type of mimed synchronized swimming performed by flapping their arms around the air in their cell. (The effect of the latter bit is a little like watching two four-year-olds play an eccentric version of house in a basement–come on, kids, let’s all play loony bin!)

Both women are in for offenses that would never lead to incarceration today: Dora is a tomboy with a taste for cigars and military history. Persephone sired an illegitimate child from a much older man. (No word on whether or not the gentleman was committed for this offense as well, but one suspects not.)

While there’s more injustice than insanity alluded to in these imprisonments, we find it increasingly difficult to assess the actual sanity of these women as the play progresses. In alternating scenes, Dora and Persephone assume the alter-egos of Dorph and Porph. Porph wears a busted Doris Day wig and believes the film actress to be like the Holy Spirit, always around watching and filling her subjects with her uniquely joyful glow. Dorph, meanwhile, is obsessed with trepanning–the drilling of a hole in one’s skull–as a means to alleviate her depression, particularly when Porph is on one of her Doris Day kicks.

The most fascinating characters in this play, however, are the unseen ones—the nurses, doctors, and family members who have the final say in keeping these women locked up. It is very easy to see how the “airswimming” adventures of Dorph and Porph would suggest they are actually insane, though it’s likely these inmates are performing their sideshow to stave off crippling boredom—and so institutionalization becomes a vicious circle which results in two incredibly nonthreatening and gentle women spending half a century locked up.

Moloney is excellent as Dora, lending the character a type of no-nonsense masculinity with deadpan line deliveries and stiff posture. Pickup, by contrast, is a girly and wide-eyed Persephone whose character has the most marked difference between her “normal” self and alter ego. That Doris Day wig, which transforms her into Porph, makes all the difference between an uptight daughter of the aristocracy and a happy-go-lucky Calamity Jane who just can’t stop singing and smiling. But of course, class means nothing behind bars, and in this institution the two women become equals in their madness.

Designer Melissa Shakun’s small and utilitarian set is appropriately stifling in the cozy downstairs space of the Irish Rep, found at the end of a series of twisting and cave-like passageways. Traveling to your seat feels like you’re actually wandering into an asylum.

In the end, Airswimming is actually a story of friendship (do these women have any other choice?) and co-dependence. Dorph and Porph become inseparable, like two draft horses put out to pasture that still walk next to each other out of habit. It is something relevant to relate to—marriage, or a life of labor in the outside world, isn’t really that different, after all.

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Closed: February 17, 2013