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The stage is set. Odd detritus: a recliner, a stool, a snack table, some odd bits and pieces, bare as an old and forgotten trailer park, which is, appropriately enough, where we find ourselves as an audience as we sit, rapt for an interval-less hour and forty minutes, watching and listening to a story of southern ghosts in the tradition of Williams and O’Connor, blending familiar tales of mystery and imagination, dark comedy, and the reluctant and lamented past kicking and screaming against the unyielding and unforgiving march of progress and the future.
A sharp play, exploring the subversive power of imagination, Lisa D’Amour’s Anna Bella Eema is like Alice in Wonderland in a southern trailer park. Equally as fixed on the notions of death and innocence, this story, narrated initially by the charismatic Irene, tells of life in her small community of ‘mobile homes’ (which Irene explains is inappropriate since her trailer does not have wheels!), and deftly weaves in friendships with vampires and werewolves, and her daughter’s creation of a girl out of mud, the title character, a golem-like character who facilitates said daughter’s psychological growth, and her maturation essentially beyond innocence into adulthood.
Anna Bella Eema is a powerful barreling locomotive of powerful performances with pitch-perfect, deep southern accents forcefully conveying a mystical sense of the possible. Beverly Rudd’s frighteningly powerful matriarchal Irene is spellbinding as a storyteller, which is apt, given the vital role that magic and myth has to play in this story. Gabrielle Brooks gives us a youthful energy and vitality that springs, in curious, intimate innocence from one end of the stage to the next exploring the depths of her own psyche through figures of folklore and legend, leading her round the corners of her subconscious and through to a symbolic epiphany about the world as she is growing up.
And Natasha Cottriall is ghostly mystery and the eery aura of what spectral creations can rise up out of the collective southern imagination drifting through bayous and past bullfrogs to be called forth into existence as the eponymous character. She is the perfect foil to the other two performers on stage, soul-compass, mapping, directing and pivoting the texture and shape of Anna Bella’s and her mother’s stories as they organically spill forth in turns.
Perfectly mixed in with soulful songs, oscillating between syncopation and soothing flow, which these three actors masterfully blend into glorious mini-ensemble, and lines bursting with lyricality, rhythm and color, D’Amour’s work is an enthrallingly fresh piece of theater, a captivating exploration of the way storytelling and raw, ritualistic symbols still have a way of helping us to grow and revealing to us universal truths. It is a testament to Jessica Lazar’s direction that it speaks so easily to an audience in this, its UK premiere.