All Things Entertaining and Cultural

Spine– Inis Nua at Lou Bluver Theatre in the Drake

spine -- interiorAmy, the narrator and sole character of Clara Brennan’s “Spine,” is one of those late teens that is too cool for her own good.

Observant and expressive, she sees through every flaw, fault, foible, and finagle her family or the world can throw at her. She even comments on her own shortcomings. In that funny manner of the smart kid who doesn’t give a hoot for much, thinks it’s all bollocks anyhow, and just wants to hang out, possibly strung out.

With her rebellious nature, flippant tone, and disdain for all and sundry, Amy is asked to leave places she doesn’t want to be anyway. These include the home where her mother lives with a bloke Amy doesn’t approve of doesn’t totally hate and the hairdresser’s where she worked, mostly sweeping up the hair others cut.

For all of her smarts, Amy is in continuously dire straits. She doesn’t have a home and sleeps in abandoned houses she also pillages. She doesn’t have a partner and refers to her one sexual experience as being so foul, she doesn’t want to copulate again until she’s age 26. She likes robbing convenience stores to get cigarettes and other amenities. She doesn’t a drug or two. Her main occupation is thievery and surviving by her wits.

Brennan paints Amy as the intelligence disenfranchised. The problem is she is sure of her intelligence without having confidence in it or the discipline and tolerance to ply it in exchange for a useful wage. Listening to Amy is entertaining, but Brennan covers ground British and Irish playwrights have mined for decades. We enjoy meeting this sharp-eyed, articulate waif, but she doesn’t seem that original as a dramatic creation, or even in her insights.

“Spine” is enjoyable to a point. Although its lead at Inis Nua, Emily R. Johnson, has a musical voice and knows how and when to break her recitation for emphasis, or to accentuate Amy’s snarky, cynical personality, “Spine” registers more as a narrated story than as a play. Even one grand revelation, promulgated more by Meghan Jones’s set than Brennan’s text, can’t elevate a good shaggy-dog tale into a work of theater.

Brennan certainly provides enough story, and Johnson establishes a character and presents it well but “Spine” remains an exercise in listening to an extended yarn. Its development and dramatic high points are those of prose. Its structure is that of a good short story, one that chronicles a character’s transition and contains some amusing and maturing episodes but doesn’t quite have the movement or wondrous effect of a play.

Narrative drama is tricky. The same monologue can soar in one production and remain leaden in another. Brian Friel’s “The Faith Healer” and several pieces by Conor McPherson have been glories to behold on some occasions and a relentless squirm-a-thon in less skilled hands.

“Spine” doesn’t seem to come up to the level of Friel and McPherson, who can be spellbinders with the right actor intoning their words.

But it’s interesting enough, and Johnson keeps it engaging. You like Amy’s bratlike way of thinking her impression of situations is the only point of view one can go on to understand them. And you like what happens to Amy, whether you’re learning it from a story or experiencing it via theater. Brennan does have a keen way of phrasing, and Johnson is energetic and fluid in relating Amy’s saga. Even if you tune out from the barrage of verbiage here and there, a trick in Johnson’s voice or some portion Amy is eager to tell will bring you back.

For all the grousing and disparaging Amy does at the beginning of “Spine,” Brennan’s tale is less about cultivating an sardonic world view and more about a young person finding herself in a situation that surprisingly suits her and fosters her personal growth in ways home, schools, jobs, and guys gave her license to resist.

Amy is unusual, and the unusual attracts her, even the tame unusual so different from her life on the scuffle, breaking and entering to stay sheltered and burglarizing to obtain the basics.

The unusual comes in the form of Glenda, an unseen character — What else would you expect in a monologue? — who has a larcenous streak herself, if for a noble purpose, and is at an age when clarity and comprehension are deserting her. Glenda is fading away from detail and exactitude as Amy is learning the value of them.

Amy’s intentions when she encounters Glenda are the worst. The girl spies a large house, woefully untended, realizes it’s inhabited by a fairly helpless elderly woman, and elects to rob it, even if it means roughing up the old pensioner a bit.

Glenda doesn’t need sharp wit to thwart Amy. She has a better weapon, senility. When Amy knocks on Glenda’s door to save herself the trouble of breaking in, the old lady thinks she’s come to inquire about a room she has to let on an upper floor. Her first reaction is to fiddle for keys, offer Amy a cup of tea, and take her on a tour of the house and to the room.

Amy is not appreciative of Glenda’s graciousness, but she’s in the house she wants to rob, has little else to do, doesn’t mind escaping some foul English weather, and believes Glenda a pushover. Why not humor the old bird and have some tea with her and act like a renter for a bit? Perhaps an extended bit.

Amy does not rob Glenda. She moves in the apartment allegedly available for rent and becomes comfortable there.

Amy is not exactly ambitious. In fact, she gives slacking a new dimension. So nesting in her own room within Glenda’s dilapidating but large house is a treat. And Glenda, while lucid, is good company. Her life as had purpose. She has been active in making existence fairer for women and participated in protests and other events. She encourages Amy to be strong and not to let anyone denigrate her for being a woman.

She also taps into Amy’s interest in acquiring information. Amy may not have been the most attentive or enthusiastic student in her school years, but she doesn’t mind delving into literature and history on her own. Set designer Jones has been careful to place stacks of books in the room in Glenda’s house that is the place from which Amy tells her story.

Books are readily available at Glenda’s, more than Amy could imagine. I mentioned Glenda’s thefts. They are involved books, library books that were going to moved or destroyed by Her Majesty’s government when the local library was closed.

Glenda and her neighbors agree each of them will take and store as many books as their creaky old houses could hold. Amy has all of these volumes at her disposal.

Brennan becomes political in a predictable, polemic, kneejerk way when she has Amy talk about libraries and the British government’s systematic defunding of cultural education and institutions. Public support of culture is obviously a theme on both sides of the Atlantic, and Brennan puts in her rallying cry. It’s too typical and clichéd to have much effect in “Spine,” but the cause to preserve literature and easy access to it spurs Amy. More than that, it invigorates her and gives her purpose. She can craft the story she delivers to us because she is at relative peace and has useful, valuable work to do. One more rebel reformed by becoming middle class and respectable! Ha cha!

As someone who might, with no guilt or regret, be called a hoarder because of all the books and theater programs in his house — I can be totally content sitting and reading all day, as the undone laundry can attest. — I understand the pleasure Amy finds following in Glenda’s wake and being the caretaker of so much literature. It seems like a divine fate.

“Spine” has grit followed by uplift. Johnson make you like Amy even when she is at her most contrary and opinionated. It’s a story you enjoy hearing and advocates a purpose avid theatergoers can support. Whether you judge it a story or a play, it’s worth one’s while to spend today’s standard 90 minutes with it.

Claire Moyer keeps Johnson moving from chair to chair in Amy’s apartment. She also has a good time revealing Glenda’s purloined books.

Meghan Jones’s set is cozy and right for its time and place. Amy has decorated in a Spartan but neat way, so the room has character that is added to by some period molding and similar niceties. The library, once revealed, is tempting. I was hoping when the play ended, I could go to the shelves and see if there’s anything on which I’d like to make an offer. (I do that. I once went to shop for furniture and came home with a book that sitting on a nightstand. The salesman was so astounded, he didn’t know what to charge me. I offered $2. He took it. Had he given it to me

for free, I may have come back for a chair.)

“Spine” runs through Sunday, March 6, is an Inis Nua production at the Lou Bluver Theatre in the Drake, Hicks and Spruce Streets, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 7 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets range from $30 to $25 and can be obtained by calling 215-454-9776 or by visiting Grade: B



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