PSYCHOLOGICAL ISOLATION Thomas, Mulholland, and Morrison.
So you think that ghosts and goblins and vampires and werewolves are pretty scary creatures even when it’s not Halloween, hmmm? Well, that’s perfectly natural, but there’s one word in that sentence that lords it over every gibbering monster ever conceived: think.
The spooky power of the imagination is the most frightening subject of Lisa D’Amour’s Anna Bella Eema, which Perishable Theatre is presenting as “A Ghost Story Sung in Three Voices” (through November 7). Any werewolves or gleeful vampires crawling out from among construction equipment are only visual aids.
Just like fear and suspicion rattle around in a paranoid person’s skull like crooked dice, the three characters in this play are confined to a dilapidated trailer in an otherwise evacu-ated trailer park. Things are clean and neat inside, but outside is a confusion of junk — discarded TVs here, disemboweled washing machines there.
Likewise, things are perfectly clear to Irene (Patricia A. Thomas) inside the trailer, which she never leaves because outside is just disorder and confusion. When she was 15, she gave birth to Anna Bella (Elise Morrison), who is now 10 and scrappy and hard to control. Irene is presented by a middle-age actor, just as we see Anna Bella as a young woman. Their inner states are thereby visible, a time-worn mother and her precocious child.
The music announced in the subtitle is mainly vocal, supplemented by eerie sounds by Chris Sidorfsky, all arranged a cappella by music director Ellen Santaniello, an accom-plished singer herself. Many passages are spoken/sung as in operatic récitatif, usually as rounds, for a haunting antiphonal effect with three voices. Jennifer Rock’s lighting de-sign adds a subtle green cast to faces when appropriate, keeping things creepy.
The third voice is that of Anna Bella Eema (Katie Mulholland), an alter ego and playmate created by the daughter — but seen by the mother — out of loneliness and frightened imagina-tion. One of the most fascinating passages here is Anna Bella’s description of sprinkling her various bodily fluids on dirt to make mud, lying in it to leave her impression, then being amazed to see her new, mute companion rise out of the ground.
“I keep the circumference of my world small,” Irene says, explaining that her situation is intentional. She says that she licks stamps for a living, and we see her doing so, pre-sumably getting money for stuffing envelopes, one of those opportunities on the backs of matchbook covers. She has ignored several eviction notices, a decision that comes to haunt her.
Director Kym Moore has shaped things with skill and creativity, keeping the pace brisk and the actors alert to ways they can show their characters’ intensity of purpose. Much is conveyed without words, especially by Mulholland as the playful doppelgänger. Thomas keeps Irene intense throughout, the epitome of a worried mom. Morrison is absolutely de-lightful here; keeping up with Mulholland in mischievousness, she provides a fun-loving balance to the dour through line of madness and mayhem.
The unifying motif of all of this is the primal nature of our species, how we remain ready to burst free of what confines us and go wild. That’s not a threatening observation when we see a child do so, as Anna Bella sheds energy jumping up and down on the couch despite her mother’s protests; it doesn’t take Where the Wild Things Are for us to recognize the healthy recourse that childhood anger can provide. When it comes to Irene, however, who has locked herself out of the world and into her mind, things get sinister and threatening.
Anna Bella Eema is 95 minutes long, performed without intermission for unrelieved suspense. It might work even better with 10 or even 20 minutes excised, to keep things even more taut. As it is, the play provides an involving examination of the far point of psychological isolation. To do so with occasional humor leavening the seriousness makes for an entertaining as well as thoughtful piece of theater. Playwright L’Amour’s 2005 production at Perishable, The Cataract, was a high point of that theater year around here, and this engaging production is a worthy, if belated, follow-up.