“You’re not beautiful here,” Roza tells her husband bitingly. It’s a tense moment, one that evokes just one of the difficulties that immigrants who travel to America in search of fortune can face. In other words, relative bigshots like Roza (Nora Achrati) and her ringmaster husband, Shipkov (Edward Christian), might be glamorous circus performers in Bulgaria—but here, Shipkov operates a Metro car and Roza changes an elderly woman’s sheets and finds herself driven to drink and talk to birds.
Agnes Under the Big Top, the season opener from Forum Theatre, doesn’t shy away from these weighty themes and not-quite-storybook conclusions. But at its heart, the mildly fantastical play from Aditi Brennan Kapil is a comedy. Each character is dealing with difficult circumstances—Agnes (Joy Jones), who came to America from Liberia, has just been diagnosed with terminal cancer; Happy (Jason Glass), Shipkov’s coworker at the Metro, is facing a challenging moral dilemma—but the play catches them at their lighter moments as well. Agnes and Shipkov share a drink as the ringmaster comically reenacts scenes from his circus days; Happy and a friend (Jon Jon Johnson) posture over who’s the better joke-teller. Each story is laced with sadness, but though Agnes is definitely pulling at the heartstrings, the gesture doesn’t feel manipulative.
This is partially on account of some hefty performances. Annie Houston plays Ella, a particularly disagreeable old woman who is bedridden and caustic, but the possibility that she could get taken advantage of leads to one of the show’s most nerve-racking scenes, courtesy of Houston’s pitiable portrayal. Jones’s portrait of Agnes is complex and dynamic, allowing the audience to get to know a very layered woman in a limited amount of time. And Glass gives the appropriately nicknamed Happy an infectious optimism, though it’s also bravado laced with uncertainty.
Designer Steven Royal and director Michael Dove set Agnes largely within the confines of a subway, an idea effectively evoked by an artfully presented subway car, along with the familiar sound effects and lighting. (Cast member Johnson playing the violin for dollars before the show begins is a nice touch.) Agnes isn’t without its problems; the play feels like it has several false endings, yet still doesn’t wrap up Happy’s story to satisfaction. But the work transports the audience to that subway car, and doesn’t let us out feeling the same. Stand clear of the closing doors.
Agnes Under the Big Top runs through September 28 at Round House Silver Spring. Running time is about 95 minutes, with no intermission. Tickets (now all pay-what-you-can due to the company’s new policy) are available via Forum’s website.