Sometimes theatrical productions entertain with laughter, melodrama, and music. Sometimes they surprise with the unexpected and the audacious. And sometimes they pierce the heart with the shared emotion of characters in turmoil seemingly beyond their resources to cope. In Ruby Rae Spiegel’s Dry Land, two high school seniors, members of the girls swim team, find resources of love and courage they didn’t know they had. Alone in the girls locker room after practice, Amy (Teagan Rose) challenges Ester (Connor Kelly-Eiding) to hit her in the stomach over and over again, taunting her companion to hit harder and harder until she doubles up. It is a mysterious scene, since it is apparent the girls aren’t really friends, although taller, thinner Ester, her hair cut short, bobbed like a boy, would like to be friends with the attractive, vivacious Amy. It becomes clear that Amy is trying to induce a miscarriage.
There is so much going on in Dry Land – teen angst over sexuality, friendship, love, competitiveness, self-image, the hell of high school, and the fear and anticipation of the future. Amy has a “reputation” that she has created herself. Ester, a girl new to the school has her own troubled backstory revealed in snips and snaps throughout the play in words and action. And she has anxiety over her future. She is a really good swimmer, so good that the coach at Florida State has invited her down to be filmed by a camera in the water below swimming, where her every stroke and kick can be analyzed. A scholarship hangs in the balance.
So is Ester falling in love with Amy in a gay way? Maybe, maybe not. Certainly Amy maliciously taunts her new friend about it in front of another girl, Reba (Jenny Soo). But Ester talks about her relationships with boys and there is a touching scene, in which she bunks down in a boy’s dorm room when she travels to FSU. Victor (Ben Horwitz) is a nice, awkward guy who is clearly attracted to Ester. She lets him kiss her, but there is no sex. She crashes in Victor’s musty-sheeted bed, while he sleeps on the floor.
The play builds to a climax the like of which I have never seen. It drew me rapt, leaning forward, forearms on thighs, utterly absorbed in the moment-to-moment action. The audience sat in stunned silence. When the janitor (Daniel Hagen) comes into the locker room to cleanup and tidy, which he did with engaging, impressive thoroughness, it was as absorbing in its own way as the scene before. This audience member needed the time to decompress, and I am sure that the actors offstage did as well.
One could quibble, I suppose, that occasionally the dialogue suffered a bit from sloppy enunciation or lack of projection, but these moments were rare and are exceedingly minor bumps in this roller-coaster-ride of a play.
Impeccably directed by Alana Dietze, the show is handsomely mounted. On a stage with a thrust configuration, the set by Amanda Knehans, with lighting by Justin Huen, is a gratifyingly realistic representation of a locker room. Sound design by Jeff Gardner supports and punctuates the drama. Costuming by Elena Flores is ideal.
Dry land is a full-length play timing in at, I would guess, an hour-forty-five or fifty-minutes of utterly fascinating action, gratefully with no intermission. What has been achieved here is extraordinary. Great play, great performances, great theatre!
Dry land runs through May 15 at Echo Theater Company, Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Avenue, Los Angeles.