Anyone in the Triangle area interested in new, serious plays will want to hightail it to Burning Coal Theatre Company before March 21st. As part of its “Wait Til You See This” series, Burning Coal has opened the U.S. premiere of Limbo, by the young Irish playwright Declan Feenan. This 55-minute, one-actress play is a most remarkable piece of work. The author, the director Joshua Benjamin, and the actress Emilie Stark-Menneg give us a stunningly rich and terribly sad slice of life.
Fresh off her lively comic male roles of rogue and tinker in The Winter’s Tale (Peace College Theatre), Stark-Menneg gives us 17-year-old Claire — sweet, awkward, reserved, still in braids. It’s incredible that the actress should be able to give house-room, so to speak, to those personas simultaneously — but she does more. In Limbo, she — or rather, Claire — fleetingly brings to life all the people and places Feenan’s words describe. On a nearly bare stage, she makes you see the women from work, the other characters, and the rooms and clubs and streets they inhabit, in this story in which she is the central character. Stark-Menneg gives Claire a combination of vitality and humility that make us warm to her instantly. The play’s difficult ending feels like it happened to a personal friend.
Claire lives by herself (unexplained) and works on the line in a meatpacking plant. She’s been befriended by a group of slightly older and infinitely more experienced “gels.” The story Claire tells us begins on the morning of her 17th birthday. The “gels” have brought her a little cake, and that night they descend upon her at home. They dress her up, make her up, take her out to bars, and get her good and drunk. Things happen, and the play follows the waves of action and feeling those events set in motion out over the ensuing several months.
Because Limbo is a completely new play here (it was written in 2005 and has been produced a few times in Ireland and the U.K.), and almost everyone has the chance to experience it fresh, I don’t want to tell any more of the story. Limbo is a fine piece of writing, elegant really in its construction, its rhythms, and its restraint. It is quite aesthetic in the way it breaks your heart, and the director has approached it with delicacy. The actress is so good she disappears. Go see it. Expect not to be entertained, but engrossed.
Limbo plays Thursday-Sunday through March 21st. See our theater calendar for details.