In one sense, the story Rachel Bonds tells in her touching, beautifully observed play, “Five Mile Lake,” is as old as that of Cain and Abel — the tale of two brothers whose very different natures lead them to radically different destinies. But Bonds also gives us the parallel story of two young women (not sisters, but of a similar age, and involved with the brothers) whose personalities and destinies are just as divergent. And she infuses her play with a new set of parameters, too — the tension between life in small town America versus life in a status-driven megalopolis like New York.
The result is an emotionally rich look at dreams pursued, dreams denied, and the struggle to forge a life of value (and values) in this country. The political is unquestionably personal here, and Bonds’ rendering of her characters’ inner turmoil — richly enhanced by Cody Estle’s direction of an ideally cast ensemble — suggests just how painful it makes the negotiation of both familial and romantic relationships.
‘FIVE MILE LAKE’ Highly recommended When: Through Feb. 24 Where: Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Tickets: $35 Info: www.shatteredglobe.org Run time: 95 minutes, with no intermission
“Five Mile Lake” unfolds in a somewhat down-on-its-luck town near Scranton, Pa., where the vast, man-made lake of the title is its finest feature. We do not see that lake. Instead, designer Jeffrey Kmiec’s set gives us a winningly bleak and off-kilter storefront facade that is the backdrop for a muffin shop where Jamie (Steve Peebles), works as manager alongside Mary (Daniela Colucci), the smart, pretty, depressed young woman of his dreams who he has known since high school, and with whom he mostly argues about the relative merits of hockey and figure skating, and the feeding of feral cats.
Enter Rufus (Joseph Wiens), Jamie’s older brother, and his girlfriend Peta (Aila Peck). The pair has come from New York where Rufus is at work at Columbia University on a very literary and esoteric doctoral thesis about the nature of mourning, and where the beautiful, high-strung Peta, the daughter of Indian immigrants intent on the tradition of an arranged marriage, works as an editor at a chic magazine. Jamie welcomes them to stay at their late father’s lake house, which he has been rehabbing and upgrading while also tending to their mother. It quickly becomes apparent that all is not well in the couple’s relationship.
Also palpable is the tension between the brothers — Rufus the narcissist, who is harboring a secret not to be divulged here, and Jamie (who his brother cruelly dubs a “doormat”), who has a heart of gold. Meanwhile, Mary’s long-suppressed attraction to Rufus — the man who managed to take flight from their small town to forge his future in New York, and who she imagines might even help her realize her dream of living in Paris — is briefly reignited. At the same time, Peta finds comfort in Jamie of a sort she will never find with Rufus.
Questions abound: Why are some people able to tear themselves free of their roots, and are they really happier for taking the leap? What keeps others rooted at home — places that might not let their talents fully blossom, yet exert a powerful hold on them? What is the price (and invariably there is one) of severing family ties on the one hand, or holding fast to them on the other? And who is best able to find contentment?
The dynamics among the brothers is expertly limned by Peebles and Wiens, with each man learning something crucial by way of their interaction with the woman not in their life. And Colucci and Peck very deftly suggest aches of a different kind, all barriers to contentment. (Drew Schad plays a friendly town local.)
A cloud of melancholy and regret hangs over much of “Five Mile Lake,” and suggests that nothing in life is ever quite what it appears to be. It also suggests that human nature often has the final say.