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A teenage girl on the brink in Burning Coal's Limbo

Going it alone

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Emilie Stark-Menneg in "Limbo" - PHOTO COURTESY OF BURNING COAL THEATER
  • Photo courtesy of Burning Coal Theater
  • Emilie Stark-Menneg in "Limbo"

Limbo

Wait 'Til You See This Series
Burning Coal Theater Company
Meymandi Theatre at the Murphey School
Through March 21

An unfinished portrait has an element of mystery to it. In this one, a thin, barefoot, waif-like girl, dressed in a cheap brown sweater, white cotton top and black leggings, stands alone. Her posture suggests someone on a beam or tightrope; her arms just so in space, one index finger slightly raised, maintaining equilibrium as her right foot carefully touches down in front of her. Lifeless brown hair frames the paleness of her face. Her eyes are pale as well. Something seems absent in them.

The darkness in the indistinct background and the thinness in her arms and shoulders convey a chill she isn't dressed for. She avoids our gaze, looking away to one side. Something distracts her. Perhaps it is her body's sense of balance that she's listening to just now.

Maybe this is the moment she realizes that she's losing it.

If Irish playwright Declan Feenan paints a vivid picture of a 17-year-old girl about to fall in Limbo, a suspenseful yet poignant one-person show, gifted young director Joshua Benjamin and actor Emilie Stark-Menneg bring that portrait to life. Burning Coal Theater has introduced the region to several contemporary Irish playwrights of note over the years. It's good to see their aptly named "Wait 'Til You See This" guest production series continuing the trend.

For all that Claire, the central character, discloses in the course of Feenan's script, she still remains the mystery guest in this atmospheric one-act. Just turned 17, she's on her own in the world, for reasons only briefly hinted at. She's got a job at a food-packaging plant in the small town of Newry. To celebrate her birthday, her friends at the plant surprise her with sponge cake (from the petrol station) and later ply her with strong drink at home and a night of it at a local club. There she meets someone, who kisses her. Claire describes each of these events as unexpected—and unfamiliar—pleasures.

Under Benjamin's direction, Stark-Menneg imbues Claire's recounting of these events, and others, with a certain wonder. In describing a later romantic encounter, she marvels, saying, "I kissed him back. It was that simple."

But we soon learn that wonder is tinged with something else. If we call it distance, then we have to ask, distant from what?

As the lens slowly pulls back over the hour and she details the consequences of her first two more or less romantic encounters, we sense that Claire's something of a lost soul: a young girl with few internal resources, no adult experience in the world, no friends outside of work and no family to rely upon.

By the time we meet her, Claire's sense of balance, interpersonal boundaries and shelter have already been compromised. Though she steps carefully through her memories, on a chilly playground field well after dark, we sense, with growing dread, that a part of her has already fallen from a precarious height. No doubt, Feenan telegraphs his endgame a bit too early in the script. Still, to Benjamin and Stark-Menneg's credit, we keep holding our breaths as she talks, thinks and takes one more suspenseful step. And another. And then one more.

Strongly recommended.

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