“It’s not the Dorchester, is it?” says one inmate at an English “hospital for the criminally insane” to a newer patient, referring sarcastically to the famous five-star hotel in London.

“Although most of our guests stay for much longer,” she adds. “It’s the camaraderie, I think.”

Airswimming, a one-act comedy of sorts, depicts a friendship that spans five decades of psychiatric incarceration – and then some. A newspaper clipping about a pair of women released from an asylum in the 1970s, following their involuntary commitment in the 1920s, reportedly inspired the playwright British playwright Charlotte Jones, whose theatrical telling debuted in 1997.

This spring, Middlebury College junior Elsa Marrian directed a production on campus, with four shows between April 18 and 20. Her stars, seniors Maggie Blake and Kristen Morgenstern, helped bring the spare but vividly realized two-hander to life with confident, spirited, humorous performances.

Jones presents her characters, Persephone and Dora, as victims of society’s rigid gender norms. An embarrassment to her upper-crust family, Persephone has given birth out of wedlock. Dora, labeled a “transsexual,” dreams of being a soldier, like her three brothers who died in World War I; her romantic fantasies revolve around a Bolshevik commander, Maria Bochkareva, who led an all-female battalion in the Russian Revolution.

Together, they scrub a bathtub and a staircase – their mandated chores at the hospital, which doesn’t give them much else to do – and find ways to pass the time and support each other. No doctor or nurse ever appears in Airswimming, whichlocates its characters’ misery in scenes not of psychiatric torture but of almost Beckettian nothingness, filled only by conversation that much of the time manages to remain fairly lighthearted.

Jones arranges scenes from their lives in a nonlinear but somewhat schematic fashion. Still, the empty, repetitive nature of Dora and Persephone’s existence begins to melt time and space. Are they still inside the hospital, or does their freedom, granted at such a late date, look almost identical to their incarceration? The play’s title – which refers to an oddball hobby whereby, without access to a pool, the characters mimic synchronized swimmers – becomes a metaphor for their surreal journey through the decades.

Persephone and Dora change over time. It’s one of the ways we know that time hasn’t stopped. Prickly and snobbish at first, the former grows more childlike, developing a girlish fixation on the movie star Doris Day. The former’s hardy bravado gives way to open despair.

My $5 ticket came with a program, which included a “content warning” noting “representations of mental illness” among other potential triggers. It wasn’t clear to me that this was what the play was about at all. A “producers’ note,” however, identified Airswimming as a story of injustice.

“These injustices,” it said, “are not just historically situated, as the pathologization of womanhood and entrenched biases within the medical system continues to harm people today, particularly women of color and trans/queer individuals.”

The Middlebury College Department of Theatre’s 2023-’24 season concluded with a staging of Orlando by Sarah Ruhl in May. Productions will resume in the fall. Airswimming is available in paperback from Samuel French.

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