The title of The Gift Theatre’s final production of 2017, A Swell in the Ground, comes from a famous poem by Emily Dickinson. Being chaperoned in a carriage by Death himself, the narrator “paused before a house that seemed / a swelling in the ground,” clearly her grave. A Swell in the Ground, written by Janine Nabers, is not obsessed with death; it has its share of laughter. But death clearly defines the piece both literally and metaphorically: the death of parents, the death of friendships, the death of relationships, the death of dreams.
The inside of the intimate theatre has been transformed for this play. With seating along two sides, the cleverly designed set by Eleanor Khan consists of two stories with a fold-out wall for several different location opportunities that the director, ensemble member Chika Ike, takes full advantage of. Actors make set changes a vista and in character, adding to the theatricality of the piece and allowing the audience to journey with them not only to other places, but other times: this play is a collage of scenes from various times and places around New York in the first two decades of the 21st Century and jumps back and forth in time effortlessly, projecting the season and year on a side wall. (One overlapping moment has two scenes in the same location but in different years: one the birth of a relationship, the other its death. This is brilliant, but not everything is; more on that later.)
All of this time-shifting follows the intertwined lives of six people, two of whom (Christine and Fernando) never appear in the play other than as the oft-mentioned couple who have been close friends with the four leads. (We are able to follow the evolution of their post-collegiate lives almost as well as the ones we are watching, and they seem to provide the “perfect” counterpoint against which we can measure these people; sometimes Nabers really is clever.)
The earliest (time-sequenced, not play-sequenced) scenes occur in 2001 just after 9/11 and 2003 when our protagonists are seniors. The latest occur in the summer of 2018. In addition to the projections, we also see these changes in the costuming and make-up; Sydney Charles as Olivia, for example, goes through four different wigs during the course of the show, depending upon which year she’s in. But even without all of this, the audience would at least have some idea of the dates of the action by the techniques employed by the actors themselves, especially Charles, to vary their characters’ ages.
Charles first appears as the enigmatic college senior Olivia, unsure of why everyone shies away from her until her friend, wanna-be actor Nate, tells her it’s because they haven’t known how to react around her since she lost her father. Of course this opens the door for conversation and shared alcohol, and ensemble member Keith Neagle’s Nate (“Rusted Root kinda changed my life”) and Olivia (“I don’t drink…I don’t smoke either”) somehow find themselves right for each other despite the fact that they are very not; the next scene takes us five years in the future to a point in which they are a married couple attending the wedding of Christine and Fernando. Well, Nate is; Olivia has once more been devastated by personal tragedy: her mother has died (and the ground swells some more).
“Rusted Root kinds changed my life” — Nate (Keith Neagle)
At the wedding alone, Nate runs into old friend Abigail (ensemble member Darci Nalepa) and they immediately engage in the kind of witty banter that screams “meet (again) cute” in outrageously large letters. Is that the ground moving? If Nabers didn’t want to telegraph her intentions here, she needed to tone this one down. On the other hand, both actors have tons of fun with the scene. The fourth member of the ensemble makes his first appearance shortly afterward. Charles (Andrew Muwonge) is a too-full-of himself businessman of some kind who has quickly worked his way to a high floor with a great view.
When Olivia visits him to thank him for funeral flowers, it’s easy to see where his mind goes, even though it’s been years since he’s seen her and he knows she is married. He’s that guy. Though would-be actor Nate has now gone through law school (and is studying to take the NY bar for the third time), Olivia can’t help seeing that he loses in any comparison to Charles. The combination of these scenes pretty much lets us know what to expect in the second half of the play, which indeed plays out along these lines.
It’s easy to see where his mind goes, even though it’s been years since he’s seen her and he knows she is married. He’s that guy.
The actors here are uniformly excellent. Charles is at first quiet and a bit shy as Olivia, but blossoms with Nate’s earnestness into an equally earnest lover. Her performance is sensitive and passionate at once, and the changes in her performance as Olivia herself changes throughout the play are what show off her strengths as an actor. Olivia changes as her hair does: with her wild, free, natural hair, she is a young woman who loves Nate and allows him to help her forget the horror of her father’s death. With her mother’s death, though, she becomes somber, and her hair follows: she adopts a tight pixie style that, Nate starts to say, makes her look like her mother.
Charles’ performance is sensitive and passionate at once, and the changes in her performance as Olivia herself changes throughout the play are what show off her strengths as an actor. Olivia changes as her hair does.
Charles in these scenes is very tightly controlled, a complete contrast to the openness with which she plays Olivia as a younger woman. As her hair starts growing back in, it’s as if she is allowing herself to become, tentatively at least, herself again, to let herself enjoy life despite its sadness and disappointments. And in the final scene in which we see her, in 2018 at the age of 33, her longer, full hair suits her as does Charles’ performance: like her, it is no longer young and wild and free and natural, capable of letting powerful emotions go in either direction; instead, Charles shows us an Olivia who has learned to enjoy life despite all of the swellings in the ground, metaphorical and otherwise. Her hair is alive again, but controlled, as she feels she must be in her new life.
Not undergoing quite so many wig changes—or maybe they just aren’t as overt?—is Neagle as Nate. Hiding his own thinning hair, he takes on the role of, first, the stoner college student, and then the law student husband, later melding them both in powerful (and difficult) moments both alone and with each of the other actors. But the difference between his performance and that of Charles is simple: Nate doesn’t really change internally as much as Olivia does. No matter the outside, he remains one bender away from the stoner college student. It’s that underlying childishness that Neagle infuses him with that makes his character work. (And am I the only one who finds it at least slightly ironic for a good looking actor with thinning hair, wearing a hairpiece, to have lines about how he’s worried about going gray? Am I? OK, I’ll slink away now.) Another lovely moment for Neagle: the night of the wedding rehearsal dinner, when Nate brings Olivia to the spot where they first made love in a romantic gesture and takes a moment to don a yarmulke and explain about the Jewish wedding tradition of yichud, or seclusion. After the ceremony, he tells her, the bride and groom “go to a room where we can be alone and reflect on the commitment we’ve made to each other…a place of solace.” This irony is more clear, surely, given what happens later in their lives.
Neagle infuses Nate with an underlying childishness that makes the character work.
The other two also each have bits that allow them to define their characters in their own ways, and neither has to say a word doing so. For all of his bluster and for all that we may be uncertain what to think of him, Muwonge’s Charles has a powerful moment alone with Charles’s Olivia in a flashback scene. (Now that seems confusing.) Charles (the character now) is the one who is with Olivia shortly after her father dies, and he finds her utterly distraught. Sensing the real cause, he tells her to pretend he is her father and just react. As she pounds on him, giving “voice” through her fists to the deep anger she is feeling towards her father for leaving her this way, Muwonge stands mute, taking it, waiting for her to finish, watching her tenderly, before she falls against him, collapsing in exhaustion, before he kisses her and the characters begin a college relationship.
As to Nalepa, she has any number of strong moments with Nate. Aside from the wedding scene, she shines in the aforementioned overlapping scene, from 2007, in which Nate brings a very drunken Abigail back to his apartment to (she seems to hope) make love, but instead informs her that he’s going to propose to Olivia. The many notes of disappointment in her eyes can’t be masked by feigned enthusiasm; she’s drunk, after all. Nalepa’s told us all without a word what her character wanted even before Nate and Olivia were married. Another sparkling moment in which she silently conveys a lot of information comes when—reversal now—Abigail enters Nate’s apartment to find him drunkenly passed out on the couch. Again, she’d have loved a night to celebrate his being single again and kick-start their relationship. As she silently sits on the couch and stares out at nothing, the look on Nalepa’s face is dark and troubled: this is not where Abigail wanted to be, and she’s not sure how to get there.
Muwonge and Malepa also each have bits that allow them to define their characters in their own ways, and neither has to say a word doing so.
But the problem, as I have intimated a few times, is the play itself. This is an original work (and kudos to The Gift for tackling it) and that fact often comes with problems. In this case, the problems lie in the foundation. All of these wonderful moments…but to what real end? Is the life and death of relationships just another thing that happens, like the death of a parent? And the time-shifting itself, a beautiful and creative device, is also a bit of a problem. Sometimes (as in that overlapping scene) it sparkles, injecting just the right element of extra energy into the play that you find yourself wanting to applaud. But too often the juxtapositions just seem…random, as if Nabers is just wedging in a scene she doesn’t know where else to put. Still, the characters’ throughlines and the power of the acting (and the use of that clever set) carry the day; ultimately, despite its flaws, I felt I was watching a piece of high-quality theatre. And if the end felt a bit of a let-down, I blame that on the power of some of the scenes that came before it rather than the low-key dynamic of the final moments, which screams “coda” as loudly as that earlier scene had hollered about the meet-cute. Nabers needed a bit more subtlety in this one, but the actors and director are well up to the task of converting her words into gold. I don’t know if there is ultimately a vital “message” in this play, but it is certainly worth seeing.
A Swell in the Ground is now playing at The Gift Theatre, 48 Ridge Ave. in Chicago, through Dec 10. Tickets are available from The Gift Theatre. Half price tickets are available. Find more information about this and other plays at theatreinchicago.com.