By Ruby Rae Spiegel. Directed by Laura McLean. Produced by Rumble Theatre as part of Tremors. At the Italian Cultural Centre on Thursday, August 11. Continues until August 20
Ruby Rae Spiegel’s Dry Land is about the liminal spaces of adolescence, particularly female adolescence: the ambiguities, contradictions, and incoherence that flow into the gap between childhood and adulthood. It’s a wonderfully subtle and sophisticated script that is well realized in this production, especially in the acting.
When the lights go up, we see two girls standing in a locker room in their swimsuits. Before long, we’ll find out that they are in high school. “Punch me," one of the girls says, and the other obliges. Amy, who wants to be punched, is trying to get Ester to induce a miscarriage.
And that’s just the beginning. At first, Amy appears tough and together, which is why Ester longs to be her friend. But we’re not far into their exchange when Amy says, “Sometimes I get so drunk I think I’m someone else.” She calls herself a slut but says she hates sex. She needs Ester’s assistance but, when she feels threatened, she rounds on Ester in front of her own best pal, Reba. “You think I like you?” she asks incredulously.
Adolescence can be a time when we struggle with the shock of being embodied. “Did you ever think how our organs taste like something?” Ester asks. Her adoration of Amy may or may not have a homoerotic component, but it certainly has a physical one; not only do they punch, they tickle and giggle.
These characters talk about Harry Potter in the same breath as they discuss getting stoned on Vicodin. And a lot of the dialogue is very funny. When Amy describes walking in on some of her fellow cheerleaders who were fellating bananas, Ester wants to know why they would do such a thing. Amy says she didn’t ask: “I was so surprised to see them with food.”
Playing Amy, Anais West aces the flat delivery and the vocal fry the cool kids use. She’s got great comic timing and she is fearless about going to dark emotional places. Shauna Griffin persuasively inhabits Ester’s uneasy innocence: Ester’s sort-of-romantic scene with a boy named Victor—expertly played by Chris Lam, who wrings unexpected nuance out of his lines—is one of the highlights of the evening. Elizabeth Willow is effortlessly present as Reba.
Director Laura McLean can take credit for the casting and an important share of the credit for the consistency of the performances. But she must also take responsibility for the blocking: a whole lot of the dialogue takes place with characters sitting on the floor, which means that they are out of sight for great swaths of the audience.
The night I attended, the room was ridiculously hot, which probably partly explains why the tension went out of the performance just when it should have been ratcheting up, and why the play’s multiple false endings were so vexing.
Still, I’ll remember this show. Amy and Ester live in Tampa, Florida, and their psyches are like swamps. Like many of us, not only adolescents, they are straining to locate the dry land of coherence and belonging.