Summer Dawn Wallace came across “Dry Land,” a fairly obscure new-ish play by a fairly obscure young playwright, while she was looking for something her young acting students could perform as part of their studies. It was a substantial play with weighty, intelligent roles for teenagers, so it suited her educational purposes.
“But then, Wallace said, “I couldn’t stop thinking about it.”
Wallace is one of the two artistic directors of Sarasota’s Urbanite Theatre. She showed the script to the other artistic director, Brendan Ragan.
“Brendan read the play and he said ‘My god, this makes me uncomfortable,’ ” Wallace said.
They agreed that “Dry Land” caused the kind of discomfort that provocative theater ought to cause. They decided to make it the first show of their 2016-17 season. It opens Friday.
This will be the regional premiere of “Dry Land,” which has had a few scattered productions, including ones in Chicago, New York and Great Britain. The playwright is Ruby Rae Spiegel, who was a 21-year-old college student when “Dry Land” had its first production in 2014.
It takes place in the girls’ locker room of a Florida high school, and the two main characters are high school swimmers named Amy and Ester. When we meet them, Amy is pregnant. The father is a boy she is no longer dating.
It’s been commonly called a play about abortion, but Wallace, who’s directing the Urbanite staging, said it’s much more than that.
“The play explores the triumphs and challenges of young women as they move from being children to teenagers and into young adults,” she said.
Friendships, body image, menstruation, dating and school all figure into it.
It speaks to girls and young women, Wallace said, but it’s not a juvenile show. It’s sophisticated theater that will appeal to anyone — male or female, teen or adult — who appreciates intelligent, challenging drama.
It’s also not as ponderous as it may seem.
“It’s very funny,” she said “It’s very touching. And it’s very disturbing.”
So disturbing, in fact, that a review of the New York production spoke of one scene that’s “almost unbearable to watch.” But the review was ebullient in its praise of Spiegel’s play, and its assessment of that scene spoke more to its power than to its distastefulness.
One potential problem with staging “Dry Land,” Wallace said, was finding teenage actors who were capable of handling the complexity of emotion that the lead roles require. She found them in Ellie McCaw (Amy), who was so good in Urbanite’s “Freak,” and Jordan Boyer (Ester). Besides helping to bring life and legitimacy to Spiegel’s realistically contemporary teenager dialogue, Wallace said they have intelligence and acting skills to master the roles.
“I trust them as actors,” she said. “I ask a lot of them and they’re giving it to me.”