Janine Nabers’ play “A Swell in the Ground,” now in its world premiere at The Gift Theatre, takes its title from an image in “The Chariot,” Emily Dickinson’s familiar poem about mortality that, ironically enough, helped assure her immortality.
To be sure, there are deaths (as well as births) revealed along the way in this tale of the relationship among four college friends (some might say “frenemies”) over a period of 17 years, beginning in the fall of 2001, at the moment they are entering their senior year at a New York school (possibly Ithaca College or Cornell University) soon after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Yet the predominant state of affairs throughout Nabers’ time-flipping story might more accurately be described as a study in self-destruction and reconstruction.
‘A SWELL IN THE GROUND’ Recommended When: Through Dec. 10 Where: The Gift Theatre, 4802 N. Milwaukee Tickets: $30 – $40 Info: (773) 283-7071; www.thegifttheatre.org Run time: 1 hour and 50 minutes with no intermission
The play’s opening scene finds Olivia (Sydney Charles), who is pursuing an interest in microbiology, in a state of agitation and alienation brought on in part by what we learn was the death of her father on one of the Sept. 11 planes, although as it turns out, he was flying home to her mother after visiting another woman. Initially reticent about engaging with the drunk and stoned Nate (Keith Neagle), she is soon sleeping with this guy who is thinking about being an actor, is being pressured to go to law school, and clearly is in a state of arrested development. They seem to be madly in love at moments, but things are never quite right, they both are too needy in opposing ways, and their marriage is bound to fail.
Olivia is African American, from a bourgeois family with a big house in New England; Nate is white and Jewish. The biracial aspect of their relationship is barely mentioned, except at one point when Nate reminds Olivia that she found Boston (where she briefly attended Harvard) a racist place.
But Olivia certainly has some sort of attachment to Charles (Andrew Muwonge), an upwardly mobile African-American student with a less-than-sterling reputation with women that might or might not be based in truth. As for Nate, he has been involved in the past with Abigail (Darci Nalepa), a fellow student who happens to be white, and who has a serious drinking problem. After school, the four of them cross paths from time to time by way of mutual friends who seem to have a solid marriage.
Not surprisingly, a great deal happens as all four of these people move on from college, struggle through their 20s and establish adult lives in their 30s. Along the way there are marriages and a divorce, failures and successes, children, a huge amount of psychological havoc, living arrangements in New York City and beyond. And Nabers has a fine flair for shaping her characters’ essential natures and various levels of jealousy, volatility, restlessness and discontent, and she propels them through some believable changes, although truth be told, they can get on your nerves at moments.
The actors, under the airtight direction of Chika Ike, are ideal, and as those who have been to The Gift know, they are up close and personal — barely a couple of feet from the audience.
Charles, who taps into her rarely exposed vulnerable side here, expertly morphs from fractured daughter and unhappy wife in a first marriage, to a certain cool peacefulness with the man who can provide her with the many different forms of stability and understanding she clearly needs. And Muwonge plays that man with a cool confidence and just an edge of hauteur, making him Olivia’s perfect match.
Neagle gives a superb performance as the needy but loving guy who will probably live with disappointment and screw-ups forever, and will have to deal with his female mirror image in Abigail, played with just the right brashness and fire by Nalepa.
Eleanor Kahn, an immensely gifted set designer, has devised an origami-like, two-level, angled set with fold-out walls that easily suggests the many different times and places in the story, with projected datelines and video effects by Smooch Medina. And Rachel Lambert gives Charles a slew of costumes that she wears with panache, and that suggest her character’s upscale tastes are not unlike those of her mother.