Playwright Ruby Rae Spiegel was just 21, and still an undergraduate at Yale, when her extraordinary play, “Dry Land,” debuted in New York in Sept. 2014. Watching it now, in its Midwest debut by Rivendell Theatre — where two young actresses, Bryce Gangel and Jessica Ervin, under the unflinching direction of Hallie Gordon, are giving such raw, fearless, excruciatingly soul-bearing performances that you forget they are acting — you can only be shaken and awestruck on every count.
When: Through May 28
Where: Rivendell Theatre, 5779 N. Ridge
Tickets: $32 – $35
Run time: 85 minutes, with no intermission
The play is about a high school girl desperate for an abortion, and what happens when, for many different reasons, she really has nowhere to turn to safely terminate the unwanted pregnancy. And while “Dry Land” could easily have devolved into a predictable doctrinaire protest drama, it is anything but that.
Rather, it is a brutally honest, altogether harrowing depiction of what can (and does) happen when there is nowhere to turn. It also happens to be eerily prescient given that it is set in a small Florida town, and just a few weeks before the play opened here that state’s governor, Rick Scott, signed into law a bill packed with draconian restrictions. He and the members of his legislature should be sent a video of this production.
In the process they will learn about far more than a hot-button issue, because “Dry Land” is about many other things — from the complicated sexual lives of contemporary teenage girls, to the tense nature of adolescent friendships (between girls, as well as with boys), and more. The play will (and unquestionably should) follow you out the door of the theater — and a long way beyond that door. Uncompromisingly real, and graphic, it is definitely not for the meek. It dives into the deep end of the pool with full force, and refuses to turn away from some ugly truths even as it tacitly makes the case for compassion.
“Punch me,” says Amy (Gangel), as she and Ester (Ervin) stand in the locker room of their school gym after a swimming team practice. Ester very reluctantly fakes a mild punch, but is then repeatedly commanded to give it her all. And although at first you are not quite sure what is going on, the terrible truth soon emerges.
In her effort to induce a spontaneous abortion, Amy, a gifted but exceedingly troubled and manipulative girl for whom sex has long been a form of self-abuse and humiliation, has recruited Ester, a socially shy girl who also happens to be a top swimmer. The fact is, Amy has a closer and more sexually experienced friend on the team, but the dynamics of her relationship with that girl — the gossipy, vulgar Reba (a sharply funny turn by Charlotte Thomas) — preclude her as a true confidante. Amy rightly senses that it is Ester who will stand by her and guard her dark and dangerous secret — whether out of adoration, a hidden toughness, or something else in her guileless but steel-spined character.
And the punching is not all. There are the shots of vodka, and the purchase of detergent, and the request that Ester sit on her stomach. And all along the way Amy, who has no money and cannot confide in her mother, only taunts her increasingly wary and hesitant accomplice. She is a very frightened girl who cannot let her defenses down.
Ester is a remarkable girl, with a wealth of hidden emotional resources, and a maturity that has nothing to do with how many boys she has (or has not) had in her life. (She has a lovely scene with one, expertly played by Matt Farabee.)
And then there is the breathtaking acting by the two principal actresses who also happen to have sleek, leggy swimmers’ bodies. Without divulging too much here, it’s enough to say that Gangel (who stood out in a small but crucial role in Steep Theatre’s “Posh” earlier this season), not only exposes a whole different side of herself, but finesses a perfect balance of rawhide toughness and vulnerability. Ervin, a recent Ball State University graduate, is a complete revelation, with a face that can melt your heart and a strength and gentle solidity that never fails to surprise.
As for Joanna Iwanicka’s green tiled locker room set, it is so perfect you can almost smell the chlorine, and the bleach used by a janitor (Ric Walker) to mop a telltale floor.