2017 Philadelphia Fringe Festival Review: ‘Airswimming’ by Half Key Theatre Company at Walnut Street Theatre Studio 5

Airswimming, Charlotte Jones’ play about two Englishwomen stuck in a mental institution for no good reason, walks – or should that be swims? – a fine line between sly humor and sensitivity. It’s received a lovely production at the Fringe.

Dora and Persephone are two young women who have been consigned to Saint Dymphna Hospital for the Criminally Insane, sentenced to spend their days cleaning the washroom. Their “crimes”: Persephone has given birth to a child out of wedlock, while Dora has taken to dressing in men’s clothing. English society of the time did not have any tolerance for women who expressed their sexuality in unconventional ways; as a result, the two women are thrown into the hospital and basically abandoned.

Michaela Shuchman and Michelle Johnson. Photo courtesy FringeArts.
Michaela Shuchman and Michelle Johnson. Photo courtesy FringeArts.

In the opening scene, it’s 1924 and they’re new to the hospital; in the second scene, it’s the 1950s and nothing has changed. Jones’ play bounces back and forth in time across five decades, and while the time shifts are disorienting at times, they make the point effectively that the days of their lives are interchangeable. Dora is droll and acerbic, while Persephone is flighty and dim. (Persephone is also obsessed with her idol Doris Day, singing Day’s sunny hits whenever she can, much to Dora’s annoyance.)

Airswimming never finds a perfect balance between the two characters; Persephone’s broader comedy tends to overwhelm Dora’s more subtle disposition. But the show’s quieter moments – including a scene where the women engage in “airswimming,” miming synchronized swimming movements without a pool – are lovely, providing a peek into their lonely, troubled psyches and the connection the two women make with each other.

Airswimming is a low-key character study, and Director K. Elizabeth Stevens contrasts the two personalities effectively; while the two women clash, they also come to depend on each other. Their tolerance-turned-affection is played sweetly by Michaela Shuchman as Dora and Michelle Johnson as Persephone. But this uniquely English story should be told with English accents, and having the actors perform in American accents strips it of much of its native flavor and charm.

The show’s technical aspects are done quite well, especially Eve Shuker Swift’s lighting, which delineates eras and times of day with clarity. Laila Swanson’s plain but practical costumes fit the characters’ lives perfectly.

Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.

Airswimming plays through Sunday, September 17, 2017, and is presented by Half Key Theatre Company at The Walnut Street Theatre Studio 5 – 825 WalnutStreet, in Philadelphia, PA. For tickets, call the Fringe box office at (215) 413-9006, or purchase them online.


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