ORLANDO — As she stands over the woman kneeling close by her, the first thing you notice is the strength and authority in the woman’s voice.
There’s a great deal of compassion as well. The woman nearby looks totally devastating, but rather than trying to quietly console her, to be empathetic to her pain, to gently reassure her, the woman standing up approaches the situation in an entirely different way. She keeps pushing the other woman to get over it. Get up. it’s not going to get any better, so you just have to deal with it.
The woman on her knees isn’t ready to hear this. She wants her to stop talking.
But she doesn’t. She keeps pushing her to fight back in the only way she can, by finding some inner strength, by getting stronger.
And in those first few moments, the scene feels like it could apply to scores of different scenarios: a woman reaching out to a heartbroken daughter. Two lovers reacting after a bitter feud. A co-worker assisting someone who has just been fired.
Of course, no one in the audience is likely to assume the play “Nine” is heading in any of these directions. Both women have steel chains around their necks, and they are prisoners. It’s immediately obvious this is not an American prison cell: the women are not in standard prison jumpsuits but in torn clothing. And both are covered, from their legs to their arms to their faces, in ugly bruises and wounds.
“Nine,” the play by Jane Shepard, is now being produced at the Orlando International Fringe Theatre Festival, featuring Sarah-Lee Dobbs and Alia Laurence in the roles of the two unnamed women taken prisoner in a foreign country, after having endured unimaginably brutal torture.
All they have now is whatever inner strength they can still tap into, whether it’s a will to live or a faint hope that they might be rescued. And they also have each other. It seems clear the women are strangers to one another, and had never met before their capture. And now what’s clear is that the absolute worst thing that either one can do is to completely collapse, to give in and surrender. They feed off the other one holding up, no matter how pitifully.
“Nine” is a relatively short play, clocking in at about 40 minutes, and features just the two women in their cell. Even so, it’s an intense and emotionally overwhelming ride. There are moments of humor, as the women goad one another with crude insults as a way to stay sane in their horrific situation.
A lot of it is downright scary. The sounds of cell doors being opened and shut off in the distance — signaling that the guards may be headed to their cell to begin the torture process all over again — get intensely more chilling each time we hear it.
And if the woman played by Laurence initially seems like the strong one, the one who is holding up better, you’ll be shocked at how rapidly that changes once she, too, has been subjected to another round of beatings.
“Nine” benefits from the powerful, raw acting by both Dobbs and Laurence, who cover such a range of emotions — anger, pity, terror, emotional collapse — that they’re absolutely brilliant in challenging roles. It’s a strong piece, and definitely a rewarding one.
“Nine” is being performed at the Black venue, which is The Venue performing arts center at 511 Virginia Drive. Tickets are $10 and upcoming performances include:
* Today at 3 p.m.
* Wednesday May 25 at 9 p.m.
* Saturday May 28 at 10:30 p.m.
* Sunday May 29 at 7:30 p.m.
Michael Freeman is an Orlando journalist, playwright and author of the book “Bloody Rabbit”. Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com..