In the climactic scene of Ruby Rae Spiegel’s Dry Land (at Shotgun Players through June 17), Amy (Martha Brigham) bends over in pain and slumps down on the floor of her high school locker room. Her brown hair is long and wavy, and it clings to the sides of her body, adding a layer of protection between her discomfort and the outside world. Amy splays her legs and lies back in a recumbent pose. Director Ariel Craft stages this scene like a Frederic Leighton painting — like Flaming June (1895) if the subject had been suffering in her gym sweats instead of peacefully dreaming in a sheer apricot shift.
Spiegel’s play offers a contemporary reply to that kind of portrait. Dry Land depicts two adolescent girls who have cramps, insecurities, and menstrual cycles, who swear and experiment with sex, and whose moods and allegiances change quicker than the weather. Her play splatters female blood all over a male artist’s unreal vision of what it means to be a teenage girl. As incarnated here, she’s not on display, rosy-cheeked and virginal, for his pleasurable gaze alone.
The play begins in that same locker room after swim practice. Amy’s there with her teammate Ester (Grace Ng) and a demand, “Punch me again.” She asks Ester to punch her again and again in the stomach, and Ester complies. They could be playing a game to toughen each other up, but it’s not a game. As they circle the subject without actually saying it, we find out that Amy’s pregnant. She hopes that getting punched in the gut will induce an abortion (a suggestion she found on a website). This is how their friendship begins in the after-hour confines of an empty locker room.
One of Spiegel’s many strengths as a dramatist is the way that she conveys the evolving power dynamics between Amy and Ester. They go back and forth, depending on whose need is greater. Ester’s new to the school, a recent transfer. She’s confused and flattered by Amy’s recent interest in her. She knows that Reba (Amy Nowak) is Amy’s best friend and asks her why she hasn’t confided in Reba, “I mean I’m really happy that you asked me. It’s just … I don’t know … I’ve never been to your house.” Ester wants Amy to confirm that what they’re embarking on together is a real friendship, not just situational. Initially, she doesn’t get a reassuring response.
Instead Amy replies, “Reba’s dad is a doctor,” then moves the conversation away from the unwanted attempt at intimacy. She may not even know the answer to Ester’s question. Martha Brigham plays Amy with the authority and intelligence of veteran actors like Jane Alexander (Testament) and Elizabeth Marvel (Homeland). The demanding role requires her to be tough, emotionally withholding and also unwilling to be a victim of her circumstances. Amy lacks self-pity and, although she’s street-smart, is only partially aware of herself. She and Ester are in formation, neither children nor adults.
Dry Land isn’t a typical coming-of-age story because Spiegel’s writing is entirely free of sentiment. Where Diablo Cody’s pregnant teen dramedy Juno popped with witty repartee, Spiegel’s play treats Amy’s dilemma with a gravitas that matches the intensity of teenage friendship. The playwright is also indifferent to your comfort level with the female body when it’s in a state of agony. The climactic scene is a provocation. But it stays true to the characters and the internal logic of the play. It’s difficult to watch but doesn’t exploit the actors or reduce them to being ideological props.
Spiegel concentrates on Amy and Ester but she’s also imagined the internal lives of the family members and friends who exert an influence over the protagonists. The supporting characters, those who appear on stage and even those who are only mentioned in passing, register as human beings in their own right. That’s how Dry Land communicates a sense of verisimilitude that’s hard to achieve on stage. Amy and Ester aren’t just sharing dialogue in a fictional place. They’re reacting to the thoroughly imagined world they share with each other and a swim coach, their parents and teammates, and even the school janitor. Because of them, they think, talk, and behave the way real girls do.
Dry Land, through June 17, at Shotgun Players, 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley. $7–$37; 510-841-6500 or shotgunplayers.org