BWW Review: ANNIE JUMP AND THE LIBRARY OF HEAVEN at Rorschach Theatre
You'll know the second you hear the title if Reina Hardy's Annie Jump and the Library of Heaven is your kind of play. It's the sort of title that immediately imbues cosmic levels of joy and wonder, fills you with light, and promises a journey not to be missed. You'll be delighted to know that Rorschach Theatre's production, a Rolling World Premiere from National New Play Network, delivers on that promise in an adventure that takes you to the very edge of existence and back. Though wide in scope, Hardy's script is a vessel for director Medha Marsten, along with her dynamic cast and crew, to tell an intimate story about the potential that lies in all of us.
Annie Jump, an independent 13-year-old scientist played with infectious buoyancy by Vanessa Chapoy, lives in Strawberry, Kansas, a fictional town where everything is as simple as it seems. Annie is Strawberry rarity: she can take anything apart, tell you how it works, put it back together and do it all over again. She dreams of what lies beyond her reach, though her lofty ambitions are put to shame by those of her widowed father, played by Zach Brewster-Geisz with a strong balance of zaniness and muted pain. He runs a website that investigates the existence of aliens, and when we meet him at the top of the show, he's at peak belief, and the butt of everyone's jokes. We learn quickly there is a lot more going on than meets the eye: Annie's father is living with mental illness, and she must balance two full-time jobs as prodigy and parent. (This is a marvelous play for young theatregoers but parents should be aware beforehand that Annie Jump does not shy away from these mature themes, firmly to its benefit.)
Hardy gives us a swift introduction to Annie Jump and her world - which includes her supportive teacher Mrs. Gomez (Rorschach company member Robin Covington) and new kid KJ (Aron Spellane) - and Chapoy is so engaging to watch that you'd be content learning all the ins and outs of Strawberry for the remainder of the play. Marsten directs these scenes at a pace that is to the point but filled with easily digestible context, the surest sign of strong world-building. It's when Annie is visited by a mysterious entity from afar, though, that Chapoy and Annie Jump truly begin to shine. Althea, played by Emily Whitworth, is a self-described "visual manifestation of a mindfurl of an intergalactic super computer built and maintained by a collection of the most advanced intelligent species in the universe." She travels to Annie by way of an eight ball, of course.
Althea's arrival marks the introduction of some pretty high stakes into the life of our title character: Annie, to her utter surprise, is The Chosen One, selected to gain access to all knowledge - the Library of Heaven - and use it to lead existence into a future where intergalactic communication is a reality. The scene in which she's initiated is a perfect mix of design and performance. Whitworth is a perfect foil and guide for Chapoy's Annie, and in later scenes, the layers are slowly peeled back, and we meet an Althea with just as many anxieties about existence as any human. Whitworth is dynamite in the role, managing to play omniscient and relatable at once. The specificity of her physicality and gestures go just as far as the sublime design work in helping Annie Jump circumnavigate its infinite scope.
Thankfully, even amongst all the Destiny talk, Annie Jump never leaves the world she knows too far behind. Chapoy and Brewster-Geisz are the true heart of the play, navigating difficult subject matter in later scenes with tenderness and honesty. Aron Spellane's KJ is a fascinating disruption of Annie's life, a kid trying desperately and tactlessly to figure out where he fits in his new home. Of every character, he changes perhaps the most, and though the role is delightfully spazzy, it's Spellane's quieter moments of growth that we hear the most clearly. Robin Covington, as Mrs. Gomez, is both Annie's biggest fan and biggest detractor. She enthusiastically encourages her star pupil to follow her passions, but is never sure exactly where or how to guide her. Her inner turmoil is reflective of the show's central theme of how we balance our dreams with our reality. Though never straying far from the character's comedic bent, Covington's performance suggests a life of ambitions stored away. But this is not a bitter character: her life, as all must, has simply evolved from one thing into another, and the love she carries for everything around her is effervescent.
This strong ensemble is given a vast world in which to play, courtesy of the design team. Kylos Brannon's video design, Julie Cray Leong's costumes, Katie McCreary's lights, Veronica J. Lancaster's sound, Alex Wade's props and Matt Wolfe's set have pulled off a stunning environment where we travel from Strawberry to the end of existence and back again in the blink of an eye. Wolfe's set routinely explodes a bedroom into an office into a classroom to the outer reaches of space. Though the design work is expansive, Studio II at Atlas Performing Arts Center can't always accommodate the necessary sightlines to catch all the action. Marsten deals with this by cleverly expanding to the full reaches of the studio - even above our heads. One of the best choices made by this team is an overhang above the audience, another place to take in Brannon's projections. Like Annie, you'll likely find yourself stargazing.
Annie Jump may resemble the classic Chosen One myth on its surface - and you'll agree Annie Jump herself is the ideal heroine on which to place that title - but it has something else on its mind. This is a play that fervently believes in the necessity of both individualism and community, and it tells a colorful, delightful tale without sacrificing its deeper themes of isolation. Rorschach, so named because they believe everyone's unique journey is crucial to the theatrical experience, has found a show that exemplifies their mission statement.
Running Time: 75 minutes with no intermission.
Rorschach Theatre's Annie Jump and the Library of Heaven runs through May 19th. Performances are located at Studio II at Atlas Performing Arts Center at 1333 H St NE. For tickets, visit https://rorschachtheatre.com/tickets/.
A quick note: much of Reina Hardy's work can be read on New Play Exchange, including Glassheart, her riff on Beauty and the Beast which Rorschach produced in 2014.