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Theater Ninjas and CPT animate a mud baby

When children are stressed, they often resort to creating imaginary friends or escaping into stories populated with anthropomorphic animals and goblins. That's exactly what a 10-year-old girl does in Anna Bella Eema, the fascinating but ultimately frustrating play now at Cleveland Public Theatre. 

This co-production with Theater Ninjas features a torrent of finely crafted narration, handled mostly by both the youngster named Anna Bella and her mother Irene. Playwright Lisa D'Amour has a fine touch when it comes to speeches that combine banal facts with lean, poetic flourishes. And thanks to three outstanding performances, one's attention virtually never wavers. 

Irene and her daughter live in a ratty mobile home sitting in a trailer park slated for demolition to make way for a new highway. But Irene chooses to ignore that impending disruption, never leaving the confines of her trailer and focusing on her job as a stamp licker. This drives Anna Bella over the edge, so the girl escapes outside and, using the dirt of the trailer park and her own bodily fluids, fashions a mud girl, dubbed Anna Bella Eema, who comes to life. 

Dabbling in magical realism, fairy tales and southern-gothic foreboding, the play employs onstage sound effects, chant-singing and near-contortionist movements to create a mystical tone. The good news is virtually all of these techniques work, as we are drawn into the story of this highly constrained woman ("I keep the circumference of my life small"), and her precocious and adventurous daughter. 

Once her muddy Anna Bella Eema is animated, the real Anna Bella opens up, chatting and laughing with her new friend. They then embark on fantastical capers with vampires, wolves, foxes and a raccoon named Dirty Louie. As a metaphor for Anna Bella's transition from childhood to adulthood, this all functions well enough. 

The execution of these stories never fails to be intriguing, thanks to Jeremy Paul's tight direction and the remarkable performances. As Irene, Elizabeth R. Wood is rumpled and resigned, but she still has enough moxie to rise up in defense of her daughter when pressed to the wall. Faye Hargate as Anna Bella beautifully merges the childlike seriousness and yearning for discovery of a typical fifth grader. And Cassie Neumann is riveting and chiseled as the mud girl. 

But it's frustrating that playwright D'Amour never allows her characters to truly engage with each other in real time, in the real world. If we are to sympathize with their plight of being forced out of their trailer-park home, a very real situation, it's only natural to want some dialogue dealing with that reality. Instead, we get two disconnected, side-by-side narratives from mother and daughter. Each is intriguing and often quite involving in its own right. But in the end, they are two mobile homes passing in the night.  

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