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Philadelphia by Tim Dunleavy

In The Continuum
Philadelphia Theatre Company

In The Continuum is a ninety-minute drama about women and AIDS. Sounds depressing, right? Well, in other hands it might have been. But In The Continuum is no tearjerker - it's invigorating, stirring and surprisingly funny. Written and performed by two astonishing young talents, it takes a subject that you may feel you've heard too much about and makes you see it in a new light by showing you the human side of the epidemic.

On the surface, Abigail (Danai Gurira) and Nia (Nikkole Salter) are statistics - both female, both pregnant, both infected with HIV by their philandering partners. It's there, though, that their similarities end. Abigail is a successful, ambitious newscaster in Zimbabwe, a wife and mother who is dreaming of a future with CNN. Nia, meanwhile, is a teenager in South Central Los Angles, eking out a living after being fired from Nordstrom's for shoplifting. After learning the awful truth, the two women go through different stages of denial, shock and grief, then try to figure out how they will go on living their lives.

In The Continuum is, in effect, two solo shows in one: the two performers alternate scenes seamlessly, sometimes with dialogue overlapping. While both performers are gifted in their own right, In The Continuum grabs most of its power through its parallel structure. This is a smart play, and that's what makes it so satisfying.

Salter's comic skills shine throughout, most notably in a hilarious scene in which Nia reveals the "secret" of how to write poetry in haiku form. She also scores as a well-meaning but clueless social worker and as Nia's cousin, who sees Nia's pregnancy as a way out of the ghetto (since the baby's father is Darnell Smith, a hotshot basketball player who seems destined to become a superstar). But Salter's best moments come in her portrayal of Darnell's mother, who is even more in denial than Nia is: "Look at his trophies. Does that look like AIDS to you?" Watching Salter transform from a teenager into a woman in her forties - with subtle alterations in speech and demeanor - is to see just how powerful great acting can be.

Gurira, meanwhile, appears as a nurse, a prostitute and a maid, each of whom views Abigail differently. Gurira (last seen on this stage two seasons ago as a shadowy gang member in The Story) doesn't put as much variety into her voices or her portrayals as Salter does, but she makes up for it with a terrific slapstick turn as the witch doctor who wants to help the natives and impress the tourists - and not necessarily in that order. And watching Gurira convey Abigail's anguish over her young son's future is heartbreaking.

Directed by Robert O'Hara, In The Continuum makes a lot out of a little; the bare-bones set and the subtle but dynamic use of lighting accent the production rather than overwhelm it. With performers this talented, you don't need anything more.

In The Continuum does occasionally seem dour and repetitive. Also, Gurira spends so much time playing other characters that Abigail fades to the background even in her own story. And the ending, which leaves the women defeated and robs them of dignity and hope, is a bit of a cop-out. But there's no denying the power of everything that has come before. In The Continuum is captivating theater, and marks Danai Gurira and Nikkole Salter as major talents. Gurira and Salter have been performing this play all over the world for the past year and a half, and I can't wait to see their next project.

In The Continuum runs through Sunday, April 15, 2007 at Plays & Players Theatre, 1714 Delancey Street. Ticket prices range from $33 to $51, with discounts available for students, seniors and groups, and are available by calling the PTC Box Office at 215-985-0420, online at www.phillytheatreco.com, or by visiting the box office.

In The Continuum
Written by Danai Gurira and Nikkole Salter
Directed by Robert O'Hara
Set Design... Peter R. Feuchtwanger
Costume Design... Sarah Hillard
Lighting Design... Colin D. Young
Sound Design... Lindsay Jones
Stage Manager... Kate Hefel

Cast:
Danai Gurira... Abigail and others
Nikkole Salter... Nia and others

-- Tim Dunleavy



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