The prophet Isaiah sees a day when the wolf lives with the lamb and the leopard lies down with the little goat. In Mary Tuomanen’s inventive and dreamy new play, “Peaceable Kingdom,” it’s not so easy. The leopard plays with a lamb, but when she thrusts her butt into the air, all he can see is a delicious dinner. He tries hard to repress it — after all, even in utopia there are rules. They are meant to be broken.
Can’t we all just get along? Yes, but in this version of a kingdom idealized by humans, the animals mirror both our own high points and low ones. High-mindeness is the goal, but misunderstanding and ignorance thwart our reach for it; feelings are hurt and reconstructed along the way. In “Peaceable Kingdom,” the animals and two humans try to mend it all by regularly convening for a fire circle where they attempt to bring up grievances and then settle or even discard them. Sounds to me a lot like the judiciary in our current kingdom.
That link to human behavior is what’s so smart about Tuomanen’s play, which is being given a super world premiere at Christ Church Neighborhood House, to one side of the historic church and a neatly fitting venue for this particular play. “Peaceable Kingdom” is produced by Orbiter 3, a theater company composed of local playwrights, in a complex yet smooth staging by Rebecca Wright. Her nine cast members mingle with a chorus of nine singers beautifully performing acapello excerpts from Randall Thoimpson’s “The Peaceable Kingdom” oratorio. Tuomanen’s decision to include the excerpts adds another current of spirtuality to a play already filled with it.
Yet “Peaceable Kingdom” feels real because like Isaiah, Tuomanen deals in metaphor. You sense this instantly in some of the best scenes, including those with a native squirrel (Thomas Choinacky) who befriends an invasive squirrel (John Jarboe). Their relationship begins well enough, then turns into issue after issue, because of what they say and do as much as what they don’t. (The actors make great squirrels.) Two diverse lamb sisters are Eliana Fabiyi and Stephanie N. Walters. A leopard (Chris Davis) and a goat (Daniel Park) round out the animals, along with the inscrutable lion (Cathy Simpson) that sits to the rear and becomes a mythical force partly by saying nothing.
The two human characters in “Peaceable Kingdom” link this utopia to a real event — the founding of Pennsylvania. They are William Penn, played vulnerably as a clueless alien by Alexandra King, and Chief Tamanend, the head of a Lenni-Lenape clan instrumental in working with Penn. The chief is played with calm precision by Carla-Rae, an actress whose lineage includes Seneca, Mohawk and French Canadian cultures.
Rebecca Kanach’s costume design greatly enhances the show’s feel as it totters between fantasy and reality; she draws her clothing from indigenous tradition and her animal head pieces directly from the forest. The show plays out on Apollo Mark Weaver’s set highlighted by three large tree trunks partly made of colorful fiber.
The home-grown Tuomanen is an all-around theater artist. She’s easily found acting on stages in and around the city, and in recent years has shown a knack for offbeat, insightful playwriting. “Peaceable Kingdom” fits right in, and I hope a theater artist in another city gloms onto it and gives it legs for more productions. It’s thoughtful and thought-provoking theater that’s also fun to watch, especially in a production as high-bar as this one.
“Peaceable Kingdom,” produced by Orbiter3, runs through May 28 at Christ Church Neighborhood House, 20 N. American St., just north of Market Street and to the west of the church. orbiter3.org.