New York playwright Ruby Rae Spiegel has garnered considerable acclaim in New York and London for her first full-length play Dry Land, written while completing her studies at Yale University. She was inspired to write the piece after reading an article in an American magazine, examining the rollback of abortion rights in the US and the desperate means to which young women were resorting, in order to terminate their pregnancies.
Last week, two of Sydney’s most respected independent theatre companies, Outhouse Theatre Co and Mad March Hare, opened the Australian premiere production of Dry Land at the Kings Cross Theatre, where it’s now playing a limited season (concluding on 19 August).
Set entirely within the walls of a locker room in a Florida high school, Dry Land tells the story of two swim teammates, Amy (Patricia Pemberton) and Ester (Sarah Rae Anne Meacham). The two girls are vastly different people, but their bond grows because of a secret to which only the pair are privy: Amy is pregnant and has resolved not to go through with the pregnancy.
The fact of Amy’s pregnancy – and her desire to terminate – is quickly established; the opening scene begins with Amy asking Ester to punch her in the stomach and then asking her to do it again and again with greater force. As the play progresses, there’s discussion between the girls about other do-it-yourself methods of terminating pregnancies and, ultimately, Amy goes through with one that has the intended effect. That occurs in a harrowing scene, which sees the teenager left with only Ester (who’s just as young and naïve) to help her through a deeply traumatic event in the cold and empty locker room. It’s a difficult scene to watch, but it powerfully conveys a crucial message – that young people should never find themselves in a situation where they believe they must negotiate such territory on their own.
But Spiegel’s play isn’t only about abortion; Dry Land canvasses an array of issues that routinely confront teenagers. While Ester supports Amy, she is struggling herself with the potential outcome of a swimming scout’s imminent visit and what it will mean for her prospects of making the Olympic team. It’s a struggle manifesting in both psychological and physical symptoms. And when the girls’ fellow swim teammate, Reba (Michelle Ny), is added into the mix, the dialogue between each of the characters highlights some of the other issues with which young people in this age group grapple – body image, general self-doubt and insecurities, and the fear of being outcast and tagged with cruel labels. Similarly, when the slightly older Victor (Charles Upton) comes into the story, a clear picture is painted of the kinds of circumstances that may have led to Amy being in the predicament in which she now finds herself.
Spigel’s writing is excellent. Exchanges all feel naturalistic and the choice of language (often raw) is always authentic. And it’s that ability to so vividly recreate real life that makes the climax of Dry Land so profoundly disconcerting. What goes on in this fictional Florida High School could easily occur anywhere. The perfect storm for Amy’s plight is not a combination of factors completely removed from the lives of young Australians, rather it’s created out of situations and circumstances that almost universally resonate. It’s precisely for that reason that stories like Dry Land are the most affecting and thought-provoking.
Director Claudia Barrie (recently at the helm of Mad March Hare’s stirring production of Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo) has done a tremendous job in bringing Dry Land to the stage for its first Australian outing. This is a thoughtful and sensitive production of Spiegel’s piece that demonstrates Barrie’s impressive directorial skill.
Barrie is ably assisted by a uniformly strong cast, again ensuring Spiegel’s text is afforded optimal treatment. As Amy, Pemberton totally convinces as a teenager so outwardly insubordinate and hard, while so obviously consumed by self-doubt and fear beneath the surface. Her transparency is heartbreaking, making the dramatic climax more difficult again to witness. Meacham is similarly strong as Ester, a young woman with more concrete plans for her future but driven by feelings of uncertainty. Despite initially presenting as a somewhat odd pairing, the friendship between the two is entirely believable. Ny’s Reba is suitably egocentric, careless in her insensitive choices of words; and Upton rounds out a great cast as the piece’s only male voice.
Set designer Isabel Hudson has created a locker room that works well on the theatre’s traverse stage, while Liam O’Keefe’s lighting design also makes an impact (there’s something so apt about the narrative unfolding under UV lights, which are so garishly and relentlessly bright. There is no opportunity to avert your gaze.)
Dry Land doesn’t send audiences out into the night on a feel-good note, but this confronting play is an important piece of work that should be seen. While Spiegel’s story will speak to a younger audience, it’s equally important that it be seen by parents. This is a crucial reminder that regardless of one’s social, political or religious perspective, it’s a community’s obligation to ensure its children’s environment is safe; that, in the worst of times, a young person should never feel they can’t seek help for problems they’re not equipped to deal with on their own, and have to navigate a world increasingly hostile to its young.
DRY LAND – SEASON DETAILS
Age Recommendation: 16+ Adult themes
This production contains graphic and confronting content
Trigger warning: sexual content
Venue: The Kings Cross Theatre, Level 2, Kings Cross Hotel, 244-248 William St, Kings Cross
Season: Playing now until 19 August
Times: Wed- Sat 7.30 pm, Sunday 5pm
Price: $35 Adult, $30 Concession