England is indeed a "new island" (the translation of Inis Nua's Irish name), if we think back to the time when the United Kingdom was called the British Isles. As the global population shifts, immigrants have changed the U.K.

The Swallowing Dark is one of those worthy plays you're supposed to admire because it's about an important subject: political asylum. But worthy and important don't necessarily add up to theatrical, and Lizzie Nunnery's two-hander is a bit of a bore.

The place is Liverpool,  where government worker Martha (Jessica M. Johnson) is interviewing Canaan (Walter DeShields), an immigrant from Zimbabwe whose case has been reopened.  He maintains that if he and his teenage son are sent back to Africa, they will be killed. The series of interviews, interrupted by memory scenes when Canaan relives his happiness with his murdered wife (also played by Johnson), reveals some ugly truths.

Jessica M. Johnson and Walter DeShields, in “The Swallowing Dark,” play characters trapped in governmental bureaucracy.
Plate | 3 Photography and Kathryn Raines
Jessica M. Johnson and Walter DeShields, in “The Swallowing Dark,” play characters trapped in governmental bureaucracy.

Zimbabwe has been ruled by Robert Mugabe since 1980 with infamous death squads. Canaan, we will learn, was one of his victims and one of his torturers; he thinks of himself as a revolutionary and is proud as well as guilt-ridden. Arrogant and too bitter to be likable, he tells long, folkloric stories about birds and lions that seem to be parables, although their meaning remains obscure.

Martha wants to help him but is trapped in a governmental bureaucratic system – another kind of torture – as he is. We hear his dialogue repeated in fragments on her tape recording. She delivers, three times, a shifting monologue about her brother's role in beating a white boy to death; all of the children, especially boys, are revealed to be violent and cruel and out of control. Neither Zimbabwe nor Britain seems to offer a livable landscape in this international dystopian society.

The doom and gloom is made murkier by the lighting design by Amanda Jensen, and hard-to-understand accents add to the obscurity. Clair Moyer's direction is unrelievedly static. Watching two people mutter at each other across a table as they shuffle papers or address us by standing still downstage does not make for a lively 90 minutes in the theater.


The Swallowing Dark

    • Through Oct. 22 presented by the Inis Nua Theater Company at the Louis Bluver Theatre at The Drake, 302 S. Hicks St., Phila., Pa.

    • Tickets: $25 - $35.