Advertisements for Inis Nua’s Box Clever are accompanied by a warning: While the play has moments of levity, it does tackle some difficult issues including intimate partner violence and sexual abuse… That statement serves as a fortunate spoiler, assisting the audience in preparing to grasp the stakes that are slowly illuminated throughout the play. It provides perspective, protecting the main character with the viewers’ sympathy as we are taken on a two-week tour of her life.
The small Louis Bluver Theatre at the Drake is itself a cube, and with seats on either side of the action, it feels like being in a box. And the floor is a painted Snakes and Ladders board game: 100 boxes. Bouncing among the four corners and perimeters of the stage as well as her life, Marnie (Ruby Wolf) recounts the stories of three ex-boyfriends, including her daughter’s father and the two who came afterwards, one of whom is abusive and the other is a junkie. Marnie, who is staying at a women’s shelter with a dozen other women and their children, struggles to build support as she works on retrieving her daughter, Autumn, from her mother, whom she doesn’t trust. When her daughter reveals a secret to her, Marnie’s dishonest past stands between justice for her daughter and a dismissal of the accusations.
Monsay Whitney (Hand to Mouth) composed a labyrinthine, though linear, story. The dozen or so other characters, each played by Rachel Brodeur, factor into Marnie’s life in ways that affect what’s next to come, but also occur simultaneously or in parallel. Despite Brodeur’s impressive ability to make each character distinct (all the while wearing a decidedly childish outfit – rainbow-striped shirt and red overalls with a unicorn patch), it’s difficult to keep track of how each character factors into Marnie’s life. For me, the goosebump-inducing moment of the daughter’s confession was marred by me racking my brain to remember where in the play I might have heard _____’s name.
Director (and Inis Nua artistic director) Tom Reing handled the pacing of Box Clever with subtle acceleration, an egg between his foot and the gas pedal. Marnie is introduced as a foul-mouthed rough-around-the-edges Londoner, inviting us in with her frank descriptions of her exes and how they fit into her life. It’s not a pretty picture, but it’s not so unusual; she gives us permission to chuckle at it all. But as the show moves on, the laughter dies down as Marnie becomes more introspective and we become empathetic to one’s struggle with oneself while distancing ourselves from Marnie’s unique experience. And later, once she has earned our sympathy and our faith, the story is on auto-pilot, finally going towards a tunnel through which we are not to follow.
The show’s warning is apropos and supplementary to the postcard synopsis, but the real heart of the story isn’t what happens between Marnie and her partners, or Marnie and her daughter, or Marnie and those who seek to intervene with her life; it’s what happens between Marnie and Marnie. While she is sure that she is in the right, and that she is fighting for herself and for Autumn, she’s less sure how to proceed in making sure that “right” doesn’t lead to sliding down one of the snakes on the board game painted on the floor. To quote from Raising Arizona, “There’s what’s right and there’s what’s right, and never the twain shall meet.” And that is the universal truth that Box Clever drives home so well.
Box Clever runs through February 26 at the Louis Bluver Theatre at the Drake, 302 South Hicks Street. Tickets are $25 – $35. For tickets or more info, visit inisnuatheatre.org. Box Clever is part of the return of Philly Theatre Week, presented by Theatre Philadelphia.