Review: DRY LAND by Ruby Rae Spiegel. Produced by Seattle Public Theater. Directed by Anita Montgomery. Scenic Design by Catherine Cornell. Lighting and Video Design by Ahren Buhmann. Sound Design by Meghan Roche. Costume Design by Natalie Shih. Properties Design by Cedric Wright. With Libby Barnard, Madilyn Cooper, Cheyenne Barton, Christopher Morson, Bob Williams, Mariah Lee Squires, Alyssa Woodbury, Sienna Mendez, Daisy Schreiber, Elex Hill. Onstage at The Bathhouse Theater/Green Lake from March 22 to April 14, 2019.
I knew nothing about Ruby Rae Spiegel’s play DRY LAND when I went to see its area premiere at Seattle Public Theater this past weekend. Despite being fond of “spoilers” when it comes to filmed entertainment (yes…I’m the person seeking out future plots of serial television shows in the nether regions of the Internet….”Will Sansa Stark sit on the Iron Throne?!?!?!?”), I usually refrain when it comes to live theater and seeing material I am not familiar with. All I knew really knew about Dry Land was the poster image featuring Seattle actress Libby Barnard in professional swimmer gear looking fierce in a locker room setting.
And, yes, Dry Land does focus on competitive swimming, in this case it’s teenage girls in a Florida high school but unlike Sarah DeLappe’s similar themed play The Wolves, which focused on all the members of a high school girl’s soccer team, Dry Land really just focuses on two: Libby Barnard as Amy, a popular girl with a chip on her shoulder and a bad reputation, and Ester, played by Madilyn Cooper, a shy athletic girl very much focused on her swimming and a bit of a social outsider. The play opens with all the swim team girls changing after a practice but as the girls all leave the locker room, we’re left with the unlikely pairing of Amy and Ester and their awkward conversation which also includes strange requests from Amy to Ester asking to be punched in the stomach. As we gradually figure it out, Amy is pregnant and desperate to miscarry the baby, she’s teamed up with Ester, a girl eager to have a friend, into helping her.
So, there’s a lot to process in the first few minutes of Dry Land…an opening sequence that features a lot of nudity (as the girls change out of their swimwear) to brutal scenes of one 17 year old girl punching another 17 year old girl in the stomach in an effort to cause a miscarriage. And, that frankness never really stops through the roughly 90 minutes of the play as the relationship between the two girls continues to grow and change with both characters revealing a lot about themselves. Eventually, the two girls fight after Ester begins bonding with Reba, Amy’s supposed actual best friend who hasn’t been told about Amy’s pregnancy.
Here, the play does oddly veer off course with Ester going to visit a college where she is being scouted for a swimming scholarship. She meets Victor, a college student who has connections to Ester and Amy’s home town, as well as a past experience with Amy that reveals something about her character. The scene features some lovely dialogue and does give the audience a break from the rest of the play which is all set within the confines of the locker room but it felt out of place and awkward despite the strong performances from Madilyn Cooper and Christopher Morson as Victor.
We then return to the locker room and the build up to the emotionally charged high point…Amy has finally gotten the abortion pills (mifepristone and misoprostol) needed to terminate the pregnancy and as the pills take affect, Ester is there to assist her as she miscarries and…it’s rough. Very rough. I don’t know how much time passes but we spend several agonizing minutes with the pair as Amy goes through the physically and emotionally charged act of expelling the fetus ON STAGE complete with agonizing screams and much blood. It’s a very graphic re-enactment of a very private and painful physical procedure and it’s brutal. (The production offers trigger warnings prior to the play but you really should be aware before you buy your ticket that Dry Land is a very graphic show in terms of content.)
It’s hard not to be moved by this scene…it’s horrifyingly intense and emotionally devastating. It’s also superbly acted by Ms Barnard and Ms Cooper and directed by Anita Montgomery. The play really is centered on the two characters only with brief moments with Reba (well played by Cheyenne Barton; it should be noted that Ms Barton and Ms Cooper were also in ACT’s excellent production of The Wolves last year) and the college boy Victor. Ms Barnard has to play both the tough, not very likable at times side of Amy as well as the terrified and vulnerable young woman dealing with this situation and it’s an exquisite performance. Ms Cooper’s Ester is a quieter character but also one of deep secrets and she is also great revealing all those layers and the levels of pain felt by Ester.
The two together are just fantastic casting and an example of terrific duet acting and all under the very assured direction of Ms Montgomery who has crafted a fascinating and riveting piece of theater aided by a strong design team that includes the very important contributions of Ahren Buhmann’s fantastic lighting and video design which adds so much to the overall feel of the production. There’s also Catherine Cornell’s very believable locker room set and a terrific sound design by Meghan Roche to complete the overall feeling we really are in a girl’s locker room at a Florida swimming pool.
It’s frequently very uncomfortable experiencing Dry Land especially if frank depictions of nudity and bodily functions discomfort you as well as dealing with the very controversial theme of unwanted pregnancy and abortion. Oh, and teenage sexuality. And, women’s bodies and reproduction rights and…well, lots of topics that can make people shift in their seat or discretely look for an exit rather than discuss. There were many moments in Seattle Public’s production of Dry Land that made me flinch and cringe and shield my eyes but sometimes “uncomfortable” things have to be thought about and discussed and even portrayed on a stage or screen (if done well) and Dry Land is exceptionally well done theater.
If you like theater with tough themes and immaculate acting, direction and design, then Dry Land is most heartily recommended.