The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The park setting of ‘In the Middle of the Fields’ is compelling but can’t make up for the sliver of a plot

From left: Caroline Dubberly, Jessica Lefkow and Ryan Sellars in “In the Middle of the Fields.” (Better Together Media)
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“In the Middle of the Fields” is an acreage of aptness. To begin with, the nicely acted Solas Nua production of Deirdre Kinahan’s poetic but plot-free play unfolds, well, in the middle of a field — a meadow at P Street Beach in Northwest Washington. The locale fittingly echoes the script’s central image: a courageous woman musing in a field outside her home.

That woman is Eithne (Jessica Lefkow), who is undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer and whose thoughts could hardly be more pertinent at this stage of the pandemic: Is there reason for hope? How to cope with uncertainty? How to make the most of a new beginning? “In the Middle of the Fields” fairly shivers with such timely questions as it unfurls in this U.S.-premiere production, while the audience sits on chairs or picnic blankets, listening over headphones.

But frustratingly, as written by Kinahan (“Wild Sky,” “The Frederick Douglass Project”), “In the Middle of the Fields” is so light on dramatic conflict and narrative momentum as to feel often like a long prose poem. That said, director Laley Lippard and her cast succeed in capitalizing on the play’s poignancy and lyricism, as well as all that aptness. The meadow location points to Solas Nua’s expertise at mounting theater in nontraditional spaces, as with its acclaimed “The Smuggler,” which Lippard directed. (The company commissioned Kinahan to expand this piece from a version seen in Ireland.)

Moving in front of the simple set’s off-white doorways, Lefkow is terrific, expertly calibrating the fluctuations of Eithne’s fear, exasperation and grit. The actress’s powerful presence steels a key moment of catharsis in which Eithne lets her anger rip. And Lefkow empowers the play’s funny moments: You believe that Eithne would see the humor in a fellow patient’s macabre chitchat in the chemo unit. (Have your nails fallen out yet? Have you had the mouth ulcers?)

Ryan Sellers and Caroline Dubberly channel additional characters, with Sellers achieving particular vividness, including as a kindly volunteer driver. The cast also engages in meaning-heightening stage business, as when a grappled-with door becomes a barrier or a table.

Gordon Nimmo-Smith and Tosin Olufolabi’s sound design — music, baby noises, a sinister droning — conveys surroundings, memories and ideas. Certain ominous cues, including a heartbeat, seem belabored. As of Saturday, the sound levels hadn’t been perfected — I kept having to adjust the volume on my headphones.

The fact that sound design competes with city noises can add to the fun of theater in an urban park. Still, with literary sheen and earnest significance that dwarf the grass-blade-worth of story, “In the Middle of the Fields” won’t appeal to everyone. A little theatrical brooding about recovery and renaissance can go a long way.

In the Middle of the Fields, by Deirdre Kinahan. Directed by Laley Lippard; lighting, Marianne Meadows; choreographer, Tony Thomas. About 1 hour. Through June 12 at P Street Beach (entrance at 23rd and O streets NW). $55 for a Summer Theatre Membership (which also includes access to two upcoming digital productions). solasnua.org.

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