Many years ago, Irish actress and playwright Sonya Kelly fell in love. There was just one problem. The object of her affection, Kate, was from Australia, and her visa was about to run out. In the years that followed, the two were forced to document their relationship for the Irish government so that Kate could live in Ireland permanently and had to decide how far they were willing to go to preserve their improbable and intoxicating romance.
The story of that romance is retold through a series of monologues in Kelly's play How to Keep an Alien, which has been brought to life in a wonderful new production by Corrib Theatre. Thanks to Kelly's tart yet soulful dialogue, Gemma Whelan's intelligent direction and a spectacularly entertaining and poignant lead performance by Sara Hennessy, the play manages to explore love in all its uproarious, agonizing and transcendent glory.
The boldness of How to Keep an Alien is revealed in its opening scene, which cleverly embraces the artifice of theater. Stage manager Amy Katrina Bryan (playing herself) calls out, "Sonya, we're starting." Moments later, Hennessy's Sonya enters and insists that Bryan read most of the other parts in the play. Bryan asks how much she should act. "A bit, but, like, not more than me," Sonya replies cheekily. It's an exchange that captures the story's impish spirit and introduces us to the language and rhythms of Sonya's world, where even the worst heartbreak and humiliation can be cushioned with some well-timed snarkiness.
Sonya and Kate first bond while performing in an unnamed Russian play that features actors speaking in English accents in a misguided attempt to sound old-fashioned. Yet after Kate leaves Ireland, the couple is rapidly overwhelmed by concerns more serious than absurd elocution. How will they keep in touch? How should they handle the demands for evidence of their relationship from immigration authorities? Should they get married? Do they want to get married?
A lesser playwright would have answered these questions with sentimental platitudes. Yet Kelly's writing and Hennessy's acting are appealingly edgy. Hennessy delivers witty lines with deadpan perfection—in one of the play's best scenes, she declares that people are "a good idea in theory"—and speaks with an Irish accent that is particularly impressive when she says the word "feckin."
How to Keep an Alien is also alive with visual and emotional grandeur. The shifting colors of Trevor Sargent's lighting design—deep crimson for a night of dancing in Ireland, warm orange for a trip to Australia—are consistently entrancing. And while Hennessy is the play's undeniable focal point, Bryan occasionally steals the show, especially when she sings Bonnie Tyler's "Total Eclipse of the Heart" in a performance that, like the play, is both tongue-in-cheek and tender.
For all its prankishness, How to Keep an Alien actually takes love seriously. Hennessy is rarely more moving than when her character faces the thrill and terror of constructing a life with another human being. Sonya's yearning and trepidation feel real enough to be your own, as does every other burst of feeling in the play—the exhilaration of falling for someone, the fear of losing them and the ecstasy of hearing that person's voice after years of separation.
If How to Keep an Alien had captured just one of those things onstage, it would have been astounding. That it encapsulates all of them is miraculous. The play, in other words, isn't just great theater. It's feckin perfection.
SEE IT: How to Keep an Alien is at New Expressive Works, 810 SE Belmont St., corribtheatre.org. 7:30 pm Thursday-Saturday, 2 pm Sunday, through May 5. $20-$25.