When talking about Dry Land, director Sarah Hamilton explains, "It's not necessarily an abortion play, but it's clear from the first scene that an abortion is going to happen." The latest show from Upstart Productions, which opens Friday night in a cavernous warehouse space near Trinity Groves, is a female tour de force, with young female leads, a young female director and a play written by a young female playwright.
Last year, when Ruby Rae Speigel's play premiered off-Broadway, Spiegel was 21 and an undergraduate student at Yale. The New York Times review of the show praised it for its ability to write young women with a sense for dialogue that felt honest, and a story that inhabited the messiness of youth without being reductive. It was this review of the play that caught Upstart artistic director David Denson's eye. He was looking for something more female-centric, fitting with the company's mission to take risks. And though he loved the play himself, he wanted to entrust it to a director perhaps more in tune with the characters. He knew Hamilton from her work with House Party Theatre, where she recently directed Sam Shephard's True West, and just a few years out of college herself, she seemed like the perfect fit.
"When David approached me with the script, I was immediately struck by how real the characters in the play are," says Hamilton. "A lot of times teenagers characters seem to have this unnatural wisdom, but in [Dry Land] there's never any doubt in your mind that these are teenagers dealing with adult issues in teenage ways."
The story of the play centers around two Florida high school students. Amy enlists her sometimes friend Ester to aid in a do-it-yourself abortion. She's pregnant, and obviously can't keep it, but she doesn't want to tell her mother, which she would have to do since she is not yet an adult. Speigel told the New York Times that one inspiration for the show was an article in The New Republic about the rise of DIY abortions.
"Our conversations in the rehearsal room don't necessarily have political intentions, but they're still political conversations" says Hamilton. "Questions come up like ,'Why doesn't she feel comfortable talking to her mother? Why doesn't she have access to this? Why does she have to go through the Internet to get the pill?' And really, we're just talking about the development of the characters, so in that way it blends the political without being moralistic."
For Zoe Kerr, the 18-year-old actress playing Ester, the way her character approaches her decision and the language she uses to talk about it feels very natural. Speigel filled the dialogue with teenager slang and litters it with ubiquitous filler words such as "like." Many playwrights, particularly young female ones, like Annie Baker, are beginning to write the way their characters would actually talk, which may sound off-putting but, in fact, adds a level of comfort and familiarity for the audience, and it's something critics are catching on to. Baker's The Flick won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
"At first I thought the memorization of those little words, like like, would be hard to memorize," says Kerr. "But they add this rhythm that's really easy to grab onto. Their friendship was actually the part I had trouble with in the beginning."
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Teenagers' cruelty toward one another is also a thread that runs through Dry Land, along with the little hierarchies established in the women's locker room. Who Ester chooses to share her secret with isn't necessarily her best friend, it's the person least likely to judge her or tell on her. It starts as a friendship built out of necessity and, perhaps, desperation. The play is about the complexities of female friendships and the unrelenting fear of the future.
The brutality of teenage life will be reflected in the setting of the play, which will be performed in a former auto repair shop. The warehouse space has been transformed into a natatorium by set designer Darren Diggle, and Hamilton believes the set serves the play well in unexpected ways.
"I think this play might shock a few people," says Hamilton. "But I hope they stay until the end, because the play is about life carrying on, moving forward."
Upstart Productions' Dry Land at 2336 N. Beckley Ave. opens 8 p.m. Friday. Shows continue on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays through October 10. Tickets are $20 at eventbrite.com.