Saturday, November 28, 2015

Review: A Slow Air

Review of Inis Nua's production of David Harrower's drama A Slow Air. By Wendy Rosenfield for the Philadelphia Inquirer

Review: A Slow Air


By Wendy Rosenfield


The title of Scottish playwright David Harrower’s A Slow Air refers to a type of free-form bagpipe melody, but it also describes this drama’s narrative. In Inis Nua’s production, an adult brother and sister, Morna (Emma Gibson) and Athol (Brian McCann), alternate monologues, riffing individually on the circumstances that led to their 14-year estrangement. 

Ultimately, it’s lovely music, a departure for the dark-ink playwright who penned the passion-driven works Knives in Hens and Blackbird. Its backdrop is the 2007 failed Glasgow Airport attack in which a pair of Muslim terrorists, one British-born, the other Indian, attempted to drive an explosives-laden SUV into the airport. This backdrop is both figurative and literal, as Meghan Jones’ set features a video screen behind the actors showing images and news clips from the attack spliced between a loop of planes crossing clear blue skies. 

But the terrorists’ misguided fervor (in a news clip, an officer recalls one of the men, still on fire, swinging at police and shouting, “Allah!”), highlight the siblings’ ordinary struggles. Morna is a single mother searching for affection, trying to understand her son, stay on top of her bills and maintain her pride, while Athol searches for work, attempts to repair a fractured marriage, and contends with his unwitting role in the attack.

The pair’s vocal rhythms take a while to get used to -- there’s a good reason so many Scottish films use subtitles -- so it’s handy that the most important connections take a while to unfurl. But it’s worth the wait. Harrower’s masterly storytelling includes so many details that enrich and expand the journey, but always move it forward -- Morna’s son is a fan of journalist/graphic novelist Joe Sacco; Morna always liked U2, Athol was a fan of the Scottish band Simple Minds -- that wise director Tom Reing simply seats Gibson and McCann onstage and lets them to spin their respective yarns. 

Gibson has more facility with her accent and character than McCann. Though her chest and chin thrust outward, and there's an adolescent defiance and twinkle in her eye, she still conveys the underlying weariness of a woman whose self-destructive patterns have followed her into middle age, making the wrong decisions and alienating those who love her. McCann’s Athol is, of necessity, bland and rudderless, but too much of both. While McCann gets Athol’s creeping confusion and sense of defeat just right, his internal struggles are muted and secondary to the play’s external action.

This, however is a quibble. By the time A Slow Air ends, you realize what Athol a nd Morna have woven isn’t a yarn at all, but a detailed tapestry in which all the threads --of family, of community, of history -- unite. 

A Slow Air

Playing at: Off-Broad St. Theatre, 1636 Sansom St. Through Sunday, Oct. 21. Tickets: $20 to $25. Information: 215-454-9776 or

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About this blog

Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer where she reviews New York and London as well as Philadelphia. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of five books about modern and contemporary drama, and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). She was recently named by American Theatre magazine "one of the twelve most influential critics in America."

Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.

Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.

Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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