Wild rides can teach you a lot. And How to Be Brave by Siân Owen — an online show by the Inis Nua Theatre Company, extended to April 25 — is one wild ride.
It’s the U.S. debut of a heart-busting, funny, profound 70-minute dash over the ups and downs of a young woman’s life, the hills and dales of Newport, Wales, on a stolen BMX bike, and the swoops and rhythms of Welsh English.
The theme is bravery: why we need it, whether we have it, how to learn it.
Alice Yorke, award-winning codirector of Philly’s Lightning Rod Special performing company, plays Katie in the one-woman show. A working-class loser in her own eyes, Katie lives with her daughter (called The Little One) and her mum, “back in the house I grew up in, with the same curfews and rules … and everything’s on top of me.”
“Little One’s dad is not in the picture, thank God,” Katie tells us, as her mum burns the toast, the house fills with smoke, and Little One plays with scissors. A classmate has told Little One girls can’t be brave. It’s blood, smoke, and tears. Today is The Big Day. We don’t find out why for a while.
Katie runs out, into the open — “I almost got knocked over by the Queens Hotel!” — through Newport.
For this production, filmed in a green-screen studio, scenic designer Marie Laster creates an astonishing background of photos-made-into-watercolors — town streets, roundabouts, ruined castle, Belle Vue Park (“you can see all the way to everywhere!”).
Despair and elation reach a poignant peak as Katie speeds down treacherous Iggly Wiggly Way, feet off brakes, shouting, “This is how it feels, Little One!”
What a find Inis Nua has made in playwright Siân Owen (who grew up in Newport). As a one-person epic from across the pond, How to Be Brave is right up there with Jonny Donahoe and Duncan Macmillan’s Every Brilliant Thing, a repeated favorite at the Arden Theatre.
Inis Nua artistic director Tom Reing directs. He and director of photography Michael Long capitalize on Yorke’s wiry energy. She can make a joke seem desperate and a desperate fix funny, sensitive to Owen’s wondrous Welsh flow: “I should be somewhere else. I got wet wipes stuck to the mud all over me, there’s blood on my jeans, someone crosses the road to avoid me, I’ve only got one shoe on, I step on dog poo … "
When The Little One and Katie speak, Yorke looks up for one and lovingly down for the other. Yorke and dialogue coach Leonard Kelly give the Welsh accent (hardest of all the Celtic lilts) the old college try — but it doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to work, and it does.
Katie rides through history, the German bombing of Newport in 1940-41, the legacy of being down. But people turn out kinder than expected, especially the marvelously named Gemma Tanglethwaite, a big-hearted cop ex machina.
Philadelphia Theatre Week is April 22-May 2. How to Be Brave is a satisfying part of it. We meet people we’re glad to know, people who rise above without quite knowing how. Best of all, it teaches us great things: “We march on. We mend. … We are made of the particles of exploded supernovas and stardust. … How can you not feel brave when you know that?”
How to Be Brave