Anna Bella Eema would be a terribly depressing story were it not infused with such intense, infectious energy-so much so that it tumbles off the thrust stage and threatens to swallow whole the tiny, black-box space that's home to the Strand Theater Co. This energy is wild, untamed and mildly spiritual, a perfect echo of the characters that Obie Award-winning playwright Lisa D'Amour has so carefully crafted, exploring the murky corners of their personalities by allowing them to narrate their own obscure histories.
The production-the first of the Strand's fourth season-opens with the show's three actresses melding their voices in a haunting, eerily harmonized a cappella number that showcases the performers' notable vocal talents. The three weave layer after layer of ethereal sound into the music, all originally developed for the Strand's production (D'Amour included lyrics in her script, but no musical direction); they use simple props and their bodies to produce accompanying percussion, shaking makeshift maracas, stomping their feet, clapping, slapping the stage and the simple desks that occupy three of its four corners.
And then the storytelling begins, because that's what this script is: a story told from the perspectives of Irene (Alix Fenhagen), a 25-year-old mother who lives and has always lived in a trailer park, and her 10-year-old daughter Anna Bella (Arielle Goodman), the two of whom take turns narrating-in almost poetic fashion-the very strange and often fantastical adventures of their exceptionally nontraditional family as it's augmented by Anna Bella Eema (Christen Cromwell), a little girl that Anna Bella molds from spit, sweat, blood, mud and a good dose of boredom.
Irene licks stamps for a living and reads piles of books to fill her days, since she refuses to leave the trailer. "There's more than one way to go out," she says more than once. "Outside is a state of mind." It's clear that her aversion to the outdoors is just a small slice of her abnormality, beautifully and compellingly captured by Fenhagen, which has driven Anna Bella into her own form of crazy.
Anna Bella is a whirlwind, a constantly writhing, squealing, cacophonous force who you're fairly certain must be even more unhinged than her mother until she picks up the narration and gallops away with it. Listening to Goodman is like listening to your heart race; more incredible than her ability to keep up with the stage directions that send her spinning, whirling, jumping and flailing across and around the tiny stage is her uncanny knack for spitting the script out at a mile a minute without ever fumbling the words. "This is what happens when you're born from a mother who's only 15," Anna Bella says, revealing a savant-like wisdom that belies her single decade of life. One minute, she says something profound like "Please, mother, don't be obscure. William Faulkner can be obscure, but not you!" And the next she's reduced to a wild animal, hissing and screaming and launching her body around the stage (she wears knee pads, in fact).
When Anna Bella Eema is born from the mud, things begin to go even more awry. Irene becomes desperate as Anna Bella Eema, who doesn't talk but nevertheless makes wild, almost demonic sounds, leads Anna Bella outdoors to play and allows her a taste of freedom. "Anna Bella Eema takes me to many, many, many places, places my mom won't go," Anna Bella says. While Goodman's energy and her vocal abilities outshine those of her cast members, Cromwell nevertheless is a worthy supporting actress-and her onstage impishness captures Anna Bella Eema's spirit so appropriately that you almost want to join in the fun. Cromwell's versatility as an actress is put to the test as she slips seamlessly into the roles of minor characters like a social worker, a sympathetic policeman and a nurse and provides surprisingly realistic sound effects, including that of a bulldozer.
As the story unravels, punctuated often by those unsettling a cappella harmonies and the organically produced, synchronized sound effects, it takes on a quality of Where the Wild Things Are, leaving the audience unsure of what is "real" and what is imagined. As the play explores a beautiful but spooky dreamscape, Anna Bella flies to a land where she encounters talking creatures, charmingly played by Fenhagen and Cromwell, who teach the girl survival lessons, underscoring the production's statements on the blurred lines between human endurance and animal instinct.
When Anna Bella "wakes up" after apparently sleeping for five days, things in the real-world trailer park have come to a head as police and construction workers gather outside the trailer in their attempt to evict Irene and Anna Bella, who are impeding their completion of an interstate. When Anna Bella heads outside to confront them and is taken into custody by a police officer, Irene becomes the wild animal of Anna Bella's dreams in her attempt to protect her daughter.