Boston is blessed at the moment with a wealth of talented young actors — a roster to which the name of 22-year-old Elizabeth Milanovich should immediately be added.
Just a few months after graduating from Emerson College, Milanovich is delivering an extraordinary performance as Dijana, a young Serbian woman forced to work as a London prostitute in Lucy Kirkwood’s “It Felt Empty When the Heart Went at First But It Is Alright Now,’’ at Charlestown Working Theater in a co-production by Theatre on Fire and CWT.
Directed by Maureen Shea, “It Felt Empty. . .” requires Milanovich to be onstage every moment, usually alone, and to navigate a complex range of emotions and experiences while finessing the occasional potholes and excesses in Kirkwood’s otherwise strong script. All this Milanovich brings off with considerable aplomb, even artistry.
With a combination of fierce commitment and well-honed technique, she utterly inhabits the character of Dijana: flaws, delusions, and all. Radiating playful bravado one moment, sinking into confusion and vulnerability and fear the next, Dijana exudes a survivor’s bedrock determination throughout. While indisputably a victim, Milanovich’s Dijana is not defined by her victimhood. That’s what ultimately cracks the heart: We see her possibilities, if she can only escape the horror of her circumstances.
Kirkwood is a British playwright whose “Chimerica’’ won the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, which honors women “who have written works of outstanding quality for the English-speaking theatre.’’ She has also written for the TV series “Skins.’’ The playwright’s admiration for Dijana is manifest, although Kirkwood demonstrates a tendency to linger too long on a point once it has been amply made. The symbolic implications of a dead bird in Dijana’s room are overworked, and “It Felt Empty. . .’’ would benefit from substantial tightening, especially in the final scene, which spells out how Dijana got caught in a terrible web.
But both playwright and production succeed in putting an unforgettable human face on a crime too often discussed in the abstract: sex trafficking. “It Felt Empty. . .’’ does not stint on the chilling particulars of that crime. Early in the play, Dijana counts out used condoms from her day’s work — 21 clients, with No. 22 soon to knock on the door — before remarking: “Today is quiet. Usually, Saturday, special so close to Christmas, 30 maybe.’’
Dijana believes an end to her ordeal is at hand: After client No. 22, she will have earned the amount of money her pimp and former boyfriend, Babac, claims she owes him. Today, she thinks, is her last day. Then, she expects Babac to give her back her passport. And then: a reunion with a certain unseen character to whom she addresses many of her remarks?
Though Babac’s malevolence suffuses “It Felt Empty. . .,’’ he is also never seen. The play’s only other visible character is Gloria, Dijana’s big-hearted roommate in a bleak detention center. Gloria, who is Nigerian, is portrayed by actress-playwright Obehi Janice, the daughter of Nigerian immigrants. Janice is a welcome presence in any production, and she brings a vivid immediacy to her portrayal of Gloria, whose onrushing humanity is more than the traumatized Dijana can absorb.
Apart from their scene together, Milanovich carries the weight of “It Felt Empty. . .’’ singlehanded. (Like Dijana, Milanovich is of Serbian descent. Dijana was Croatian in the original 2009 London production.) Director Shea opts for a promenade staging in which the audience gets up and moves to a different section of Charlestown Working Theater for the scene in the detention center.
Tickets to “It Felt Empty. . .’’ cost $10, a minuscule price to pay for an evening at the theater — especially one that might give you the chance to one day say you were there at the start of Elizabeth Milanovich’s career.Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.