Dry Land Proves Unsettling
By Patrick Hurley
Dry Land, playing now at the Kirk Douglas Theatre as part of Center Theatre Groups Block Party, is a theatrical and literary novelty, it’s a coming-of-age story that was written by a playwright who was only twenty-one years old when she wrote it, she had not had time nor space from her own youth before she tackled this very deliberate, awkwardly funny exploration of friendship. And while some could lay the blame of her inexperience of life on the lackadaisical adherence to traditional plot, it is precisely the lens of inexperience that creates something new and interesting.
Though touted by some as a play about an abortion, Dry Land is actually a bildungsroman that explores the rough terrain of being young and lost in one’s own life, and highlights the pain of having to let go of who we think we’ll be when we grow up and all the heartache that accompanies it. And because playwright Ruby Rae Spiegel was so young when she wrote it, there is no nostalgia, and no sentimentality, it’s just a glimpse of teenage life through the liminal view of someone just on the other side of it.
The play takes place in the girls locker room of a Florida High School. When we first meet Amy (Teagan Rose) and Ester (Connor Kelly-Eiding) they are in the locker room after swim practice where Amy keeps insisting that Ester punch her in the stomach. We soon learn what the motivation for the punches actually is. Amy is pregnant and is trying to get rid of it. The topic of abortion is secondary throughout most of this play. These are teenage girls and so there is no political discussion about women’s rights to be had in this world. This is not a pro or anti-abortion argument. Instead, there are loyalties that are questioned, roles that are assumed, and issues of gender that incidentally overtake the scenes. It is incidental because it’s projected from the audience, which is why this is such an interesting theatrical experience for this time and place. Most of the people in the audience will be older than the characters on stage as well as the author, and so there is a reversal happening; we know more than they do, and this puts our expectations on the inevitability of this piece into question. Yes, the plot is predictable, as most of our lives were when we were dealing with high school drama.
What isn’t predictable are the moments of tenderness and hope that peek through the more melodramatic moments, which indicates this is not a plot-driven play, and the abortion is the catalyst for the larger metaphor. It’s not a coincidence that the play takes place in the locker room of the girl’s swim team, where on one side is a pool, and the other the “real world.” There is a birthing metaphor to water that may be obvious, but Ms. Speigel doesn’t want to go entirely on that route, she wants to literally have Amy give birth to a part of herself that she has destroyed in this in-between place. It’s the loss of something innocent, something that can’t ever be what it was again, at that very moment in her life where she is exactly between being a child and being an adult. And what’s most interesting about this play, is the idea that she doesn’t have to do it alone, that Ester refuses to let go of her. The inherent hope in that gesture is something that flies in the face of the common attitude toward Millennials apathetic outlook on life. This play is fueled by human connection, and serves as a unifier for young women, who are still facing the same horrible societal issues of body image and their roles in society as the generations did before them. But for this play, the thing that brings them together and unites them is each other. No outside force, more specifically…no man.
This production, a remount of Echo Theater Company’s production last year, gets most of it right. There are moments where exercises of duration felt like exactly that, and the interruption scene with the Janitor (Daniel Hagan) while interesting theatrically, might go on a bit too long. Otherwise director Alana Dietze gets out of the way of the text and allows the actors to just simply connect with one another. And for the most part, that’s what they do. The scene with Victor (Ben Horwitz) also feels a bit too long and almost dramaturgically unnecessary. It’s revealing a side of Ester’s character that we haven’t seen, but that side doesn’t earn its place in the rest of the play, and so that scene may serve as too much of a distraction from the central relationship between she and Amy.
Other than that, this is a very good production of a very good play, one that says something about the state of being young, and full of contradictions, pain, and hope, a universal idea that hasn’t changed but is refreshing to see from the point of view of someone still facing it.
Center Theatre Group’s Block Party continues with the opening of The Echo Theater Company production of “Dry Land” this Sunday, May 14 at 6:30 p.m. at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. Written by Ruby Rae Spiegel and directed by Alana Dietze, “Dry Land” will begin previews May 12 and continue for 11 performances only through May 21, 2017.
Tickets for each production are available by calling (213) 628-2772, online at http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org, at the Center Theatre Group Box Office at the Ahmanson Theatre or at the Kirk Douglas Theatre Box Office two hours prior to performance. Tickets range from $25 – $70 (ticket prices are subject to change).