Near the middle of "Anna Bella Eema" — currently running at Perishable Theatre — one character is about to embark on a psychological journey, a quest that will take her through a fairy tale world populated by animal beings, both helpful and threatening. She leans toward the audience and whispers, "Just imagine everything I tell you as taking much, much longer and being much more intense."
The problem with "Anna Bella Eema" isn't exactly that it's a bad play, but rather that it isn't exactly a play. When a character has to telegraph that something important is about to happen by literally telling the audience something important is about to happen, it's obvious that something is awry.
The playwright, Lisa D'Amour, a visiting lecturer in theatre arts and performance studies at Brown, missed the mark here, crafting narrators instead of characters and exposition instead of action.
"Anna Bella Eema" takes place in the remnants of a trailer park somewhere deep in the Southern Gothic tradition. (The eye-catching clutter of Kathryn Kawecki's detailed set evokes the squalor.) Irene (Patricia Thomas), a professional stamp-licker, lives there with her 10-year-old daughter, Anna Bella (Elise Morrison GS, a doctoral student in theatre arts and performance studies). The close walls of Irene's mobile home would seem to delimit her world, but they actually open up the possibility of a more extravagant — and more problematic — escape method: storytelling.
"Outside is a state of mind," Irene says multiple times, and her vivid, anxious imagination supplies the world beyond the trailer park with its full share of vampires, werewolves and monsters. But she refuses to acknowledge the real external threat menacing her unsound world: the looming construction of an interstate highway that will pass through the trailer park and wipe it off the map.
Cloistered and defiant, Anna Bella is exasperated by the limitations of life in the trailer. In a fit of pique, she builds a girl out of mud and breathes life into it. We know this because she tells us she did it.
The introduction of this new friend, Anna Bella Eema (Katie Mulholland), disrupts the fragile balance of Irene's world and sets in motion Anna Bella's passage out of childhood. Anna Bella Eema inducts her creator into adulthood, enabling Anna Bella to circumvent her mother's authority. Again, all of this is explained to us, words piling on top of words. We want the characters to stop talking for once and just show us something.
If "Anna Bella Eema" were the Flannery O'Connor short story it yearns so desperately to be, it could succeed without ever leaving the subjective narration of the characters.
But this is theater, and, one way or another, speech has to be a space in which things happen, a space for the working out of conflict, not just for the description of action and sense. Occasionally, the characters in "Anna Bella Eema" break into a kind of speak-singing, with D'Amour's words set to music by Chris Sidorfsky. These unaccompanied arias and ensembles are often striking and expressive, but they feel unmotivated, like a stopgap attempt to fill in, with song, the emotional void left by the absence of drama.
The truly sad thing is that the language of "Anna Bella Eema," taken on its own, had to be so beautiful. D'Amour soaks her text in unpretentious, elemental prose poetry, rich in detail and impact.
The three actresses, too, are exceptional. As Irene, Thomas projects a warm, easy and likable stage presence that highlights her character's psychological complexity, and Mulholland's Anna Bella Eema is arch and otherworldly. Irene's discomfort with this archetypal Golem figure becomes understandable because Mulholland explores a territory that is both animalistic and machine-like, but never fully human.
Playing the preteen Anna Bella, Morrison capitalizes on her round face and bright, wide eyes. Her performance is extremely sympathetic, childlike without ever being condescending. And the direction — by Kym Moore, a visiting assistant professor of theatre, speech and dance — uses the space well, finding avenues within the script for evocative movement.
"Anna Bella Eema" really does have its heart in the right place. Its intentions are honorable: It wants to take a thin story and make it thick with resonance. It's not schlock. But, sadly, it isn't drama either.
"Anna Bella Eema" runs at Perishable Theatre (95 Empire St.) through Nov. 7.