Tuesday, August 02, 2016

Benne’s "Terra Incognita" has something to crow about

Gretchen Douma and Lillian Afful Straton in Terra Incognita (Shane Regan)

Terra Incognita
Annex Theatre
Through August 20, 2016

Annex Theatre’s current theatrical opening is a world premiere. That’s not unusual for the tiny (only in physical space), volunteer collective. What’s a bit unusual is that this play, Terra Incognita, by Benjamine Benne, only has four actors. Some of their recent world premieres have had a dozen or more characters.

This is Benne’s first fully-mounted production, but he’s been extremely busy generating product over the last several years, getting noticed by Eugene O’Neill’s National Playwrights Conference, and will be leaving us to serve for a year in Minneapolis’ Playwright Center as a Many Voices Fellow. That’s not to say that more of his plays may well be produced here! He has a unique energy and commitment to his craft.

This play is a part of his “mortality trilogy” and examines the will to live, as a “big” theme. Two lonely souls, trapped inside their own limited imaginations, come together  with unexpected results. Both are stuck in the past, having trouble opening themselves to Life’s possibilities.

The title refers to the unknown, the mystery of what might come next. Most of us can likely say that we wish we had a bit more certainty about our path forward, and probably would say that we sometimes fear what we can’t expect.

Starting off with a vibrant and mystical opening, Benne weaves in an “angel” or agent of change who maybe protects or maybe stirs things up. This mysticism carries throughout the play, giving it a flavor that keeps the characters from getting mundane or cliché. Though these two women are people we can recognize easily.

Nadia (Lillian Afful Straton) is a young woman who has carefully trudged along a daily path of sobriety until her days number more than a year. But she is still haunted by the memory of her dead lover, feeling like she should have died with him in the accident that took him. Recently, she’s been followed around by a crow. Perhaps he’s watching her from the grave.

Sheila (Gretchen Douma) is an older social worker that begins some kind of therapy sessions with Nadia. The reasons for this are murky, but don’t really matter. There are some usual difficulties getting started between a young, resistant, loner woman and the one who tries, somewhat awkwardly, to offer support.

But they begin to find a way to understand each other, and through their association, they change each other. By the end, it’s clear that they have both managed to break through some of their self-limiting ideas and made personal progress toward goals they had difficulty envisioning as possible.

With the help of the Angel (Eva Estrada-Campos) and the apparition of Nadia’s dead lover, X (Jordan-Michael Whidbey), the story is told lyrically and affectingly. The cast is solid and introduces three new faces to the local scene with veteran actor Douma familiar to some, though not usually at Annex.

Director Pilar O’Connell does a great job of evoking the atmospherics with the help of an all white set by Mary Ann Keeney, moody lighting by Ranleigh Starling, sometimes eerie sound design by Chris Leher, and screen puppets by Ben Burris.

This is a fine first production. Benne has a great inner ear for women’s voices (which he informs me is probably because he grew up in a household with his mother, grandmother and several aunts!) and reflects them believably. We can look forward to many more plays of his in the future, whether he resides here or not.

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