“Dry Land” starts with two teenage girls in the locker room of their Florida high school. One asks the other to punch her in the stomach. She does. “Harder,” the first girl says. “Again,” she says, and harder still. The second girl overcomes her reluctance and the dull thud of her fist into her friend’s midsection resonates through the confined space of the Sarasota’s Urbanite Theatre. You feel the pain of the blows. You feel the pain even more intensely when you comprehend that the girls are attempting a do-it-yourself abortion.
Ruby Rae Spiegel wrote “Dry Land” when she was barely 21. The two lead actors in the Urbanite production, which opens the daring young theater’s first full-year season, are still in their teens.
Spiegel’s writing is harsh, beautiful and insightful. The performances by Ellie McCaw (who was so good in Urbanite’s “Freak”) and Jordan Boyer (making her professional debut) handle the devastating intensity of their complex roles with a level of talent and wisdom that we have no right to expect from kids or very young adults.
“Dry Land,” since it hit the theater scene a couple of years back, has been commonly described as a drama about abortion. That’s not wrong, but it’s not exactly right either. It’s more a drama about that time of life that affects so many of us so deeply, and continues to affect us even into our adult years. The characters are straddling childhood and adulthood, making extremely grown-up decisions while they’re still giggling like little girls, exuding bravado while they’re scared witless by their predicaments, facing life-altering choices while they’re gossiping about their classmates. At its heart, “Dry Land” is a play about a complicated and evolving relationship between the two main characters.
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Its characters are teens, and not always very likeable, but that doesn’t keep “Dry Land” from providing astute observations about the human condition that are universal and not specific to age.
Spiegel’s play is dramatic — it could almost be described as a tragedy — but it’s full of laughter, and permeated with love and happiness even in the most harrowing scenes. And the most harrowing scene is almost unbearably intense, and performed with an impressive lack of restraint by McCaw.
The Urbanite space is configured in a way that it never has been before, with raked seats facing what could be described as a proscenium stage. Richard Cannon’s locker room set is effective, and atypically realistic for an Urbanite show.
Director Summer Dawn Wallace, who’s a teacher when she’s not working as Urbanite’s co-artistic director, has to get a lot of credit for the work of this young cast, which also includes recent Asolo Conservatory grad Josh James, Booker High School student Olivia Siegel, and full-fledged adult, Richard Levene, in a small role.
She also has to get a lot of credit for choosing to stage this play. It’s not a crowd-pleaser and not a safe bet to be a commercial success. It’s unsettling and uncomfortable. But it’s also edifying and absolutely fascinating, the kind of play that appeals to theater-goers who value art over diversion.