Sunday, May 27, 2018

"Dry Land"

Dry Land
Ruby Rae Spiegel

Grace Ng & Martha Brigham
If there were ever a play that should come with a few upfront “Warning” signs like those we now see on so many consumer goods, perhaps it is Ruby Rae Spiegel’s Dry Land now in a spellbinding, but often difficult-to-watch production at Shotgun Players.

--> Warning:
- Anyone who may faint at the sight of massive amounts of blood flowing from a convulsing body, be prepared to close your eyes.
- Anyone flinching at a pregnant girl getting repeatedly punched in the stomach, close your eyes.
- Anyone unable to watch a self-induced abortion, close your eyes and plug your ears.
- There will be a five-minute period of an actor playing a janitor cleaning up a locker room splattered in blood – a good time to listen to the background “Learning How to Live” by Lucinda Williams ... but watch for tears as you listen to the lyrics.

But with said set of warnings should also come the promise for a sharply compelling, thought-provoking, and ever-so timely play performed by two young actors who give award-worthy performances.  While a major thread of Dry Land is how teenage girls in much of the U.S. are given nothing but horrific choices when it comes to unwanted pregnancies, the play at its heart is much more about the constantly confusing bundle of friendships, disappointments, hopes, and dreams that make up a teenager girl’s life.  For anyone, female or male, the play also prods us to explore what it took for us to forgive things we did and said at a younger age in order to move on to be the people we now are – and have we in fact absolved ourselves of those earlier times when we were not the person we really wanted to be.

Grace Ng & Martha Brigham
Ruby Rae Spiegel’s Dry Land takes place in a Florida high school, swim team’s locker room (so realistically recreated by Angrette McCloskey one can almost smell the sweat and chlorine).  Petite-sized Ester (Grace Ng) is freaking out that her upcoming swim trial for a scholarship at Florida State may coincide with her period.  “What if my tampon falls out and what if there are streaks of blood and everyone has to evacuate the pool?” she hyperventilates to team-mate and much taller and broad-shouldered, Amy (Martha Brigham).  After some reassuring, Amy turns an erect, full-body stance toward Ester and commands, patting her tummy, “Punch me again ... Punch me harder.” 

The angst and worries of Ester are teenage real, but the unwanted pregnancy of Amy – one she has no one else but this one, not-even-best friend to tell – is beyond real, almost surreal.  Between girl jabber about boys, sex, and who has and has not done what (and Amy, it appears, has done a lot), other Internet-taught remedies for self-aborting are discussed.  Some are rejected outright (drinking the Tide Pods or Clorox that Ester bought when she could not find the organic detergent Amy wanted to drink).  Others are tried on this and subsequent times when the two are alone in the sanctity of the locker room (Ester sitting on Amy’s now-poochie stomach and the two trading swigs of a liter of vodka).  And as they talk, they also each share dreams of the future -- dreams that appear easier to come for the scholastically and athletically gifted Ester than for Amy, who is hoping to go to the local community college.

Martha Brigham & Grace Ng
As happens in high school, blossoming friendships often get tested – especially between those others see as unlikely to be friends.  Enter Amy’s rough-talking, jocular, butch-acting best friend, Reba (Amy Nowak).  Triangular relationships are often difficult, and it does not take long for the already stressed Amy to find it too much to have long-term best friend and new friend-of-necessity in the same space as she.  Fireworks erupt.  Accusations fly.  Feelings are hurt, and hurt badly. 

But the reality of a stomach that will soon be showing does not go away nor the fact that Ester is the only person whom Amy has for some reason entrusted with her secret.  The ruptured friendship cannot change those circumstances, and events begin to unfold at an alarming pace once Amy has ordered aborting pills on the Internet. 

What happens to each and both the girls is one of the most horrific and beautiful scenes I have ever witnessed on a stage, one from which I had to divert my eyes several times.  Both actors provide gripping performances that speak of skills usually seen in those much older and more experienced than either – that being especially true of Martha Brigham whose pain, terror, and yes, courage during the on-the-floor aborting sequence that we witness is chilling and horrifying.

Ariel Craft directs this coming of age play with an eye to remind us upfront that these are just typical, often silly, sometimes crude and lewd teenage girls being and doing what girls must do when alone in a locker room.  But she also does not shy away from pulling the curtain back from a horrific situation that young girls and women must find themselves on a too-frequent basis, day after day – especially under the current administration’s full-out attack on the woman’s right to choose.  And to all that, she does not let us thankfully forget that these two will move on to hopefully meet some of their dreams, probably scarred but also with lessons that will in the end serve them well.

Along with the aforementioned set designer, the director has assembled a top-notch creative team to ensure much realism of a high school setting.  Valera Coble’s costumes include the most-worn item, swim suits worthy of competitive swimmers, as well as the other items teens throw on as they rush to practice.  As fight director, Dave Maier has made the body contact so real as to cause audience to flinch and even audibly gasp.  Cassie Barnes’s lighting is stark and bright to show off the gym’s polished floor.  Sara Witsch’s sound design sometimes warns the girls of nearby others in bathrooms and hallways while also giving us a soundtrack of the music these girls probably stream on their way to and from practice.

Ruby Rae Spiegel wrote this script at the ripe old age of twenty-one, at a time her own teen years were still fresh in her memory bank.  The script is so strong in concept and dialogue, but there are elements that seem extraneous.  The core story of the two teens and their forming relationship during a difficult time loses focus when Grace goes to FSU for the swim trials and meets a wonderfully goofy guy, Victor (Adam Magill), on whose floor she is supposed to sleep in the dorm.  Their vignette is funny and cute but really adds little to the play itself. 

The inclusion of the janitor’s role (Don Wood) may be needed for clean up; but the pause in action just watching him mop is a bit bizarre.  Similarly, including a team of 5-6, non-speaking swimmers -- whom we mostly see stretching in between scenes through the locker room’s opaque glass but who ramble through the room near the play’s end on the way to practice – seems a lot of trouble just to remind us that everyone else’s life is going along as normal while this crisis is occurring under their noses.

Going to live theatre is not always just about being entertained and having a fun night out.  Choosing to see a gut-wrenching but still inspiring play like Dry Land may not be everyone’s choice for a Saturday night out on the town; but with the proper, upfront warnings and mental, emotional preparation, a production such as currently on the Shotgun Players stage can certainly by meaningful and impactful.

Rating: 3.5 E

Dry Land continues through June 17, 2018 at at the Ashby Stage of Shotgun Players, 1901 Ashby Avenue, Berkeley.  Tickets are available at  or by calling 510-841-6500.

Photos by Ben Kratz Studio

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