Local indie companies Outhouse Theatre Co and Mad March Hare join forces for the Australian premiere of this work by young American playwright Ruby Rae Spiegel
“Punch me.” It’s sometimes a question, occasionally a plea and frequently an order, but it’s a common refrain. Dry Land, written by Ruby Rae Spiegel when she was just 21 years old, is an astonishing playwriting debut: substantial, essential, and unsettling.
Amy (Patricia Pemberton), a disaffected Cool Florida Teen is the one asking. She’s pregnant. Telling her mother is not an option, and with no fake ID or credit card, safe options for terminating the pregnancy – such as having a doctor perform the necessary procedure – are out the question.
What she does have is Ester (Sarah Rae Anne Meacham). They’re on the swim team together (we spend most of our time in the locker room) but socially they’re worlds apart: Ester isn’t ‘cool’. To be Amy’s chosen confidante is intoxicating, and Ester – who has issues of her own – readily agrees to help with the problem. She’s the one landing the punches and fetching Amy Gatorade, grateful for the chance to be included.
This shared secret is the basis for an intimate, but also volatile, friendship. Amy and Ester have clear affection for each other but are embarrassed by it; when they are alone together, each one’s world seems to begin and end with the other, but outside of that bubble their connection becomes untenable, or at least it does to Amy. If you were an adolescent woman, you might recognise that turbulence, and Spiegel’s writing is full of this sense-memory construction of human relationships; it’s all ineffably real, as though Spiegel has resisted every urge to neaten the rough edges of ordinary life for onstage presentation.
Director Claudia Barrie leans into this unflinching quality: she stares the audience down, daring them to be squeamish, daring them to judge. The comedy – and there is comedy, in and around the blood and violence and pain – floats lightly to the top thanks to her confident hand, soothing us until we’ve come too far for soothing. But it’s her shrewd handling of the more grisly scenes that sets this production above and beyond most independent fare – Barrie keeps the production tense and stomach-twisting without ever being maudlin or over-the-top.
This small cast is remarkable. As Amy’s best friend Reba, Michelle Ny is blithe, funny, and clearly at home in her life and her body (in stark contrast to Amy and Ester, wrestling with deeper secrets and hidden wells of anxiety). Charles Upton who, as a family friend, shares a moment with Ester in one stunningly self-contained scene set away from the swim team locker room, is immensely and immediately likeable; his laid-back performance gives us a new, Amy-free context through which to better understand Ester.
But Pemberton and Meacham are the stars of the play, and each give star-making performances. Pemberton’s Amy resists Daria-style tropes; with every moment, she seems to be forcing herself upright. She might be defensive but we see the strain and struggle it takes for her to be dismissive. And Meacham is a startling Ester who seems deeply uncomfortable in her body. She moves like a deer despite her athleticism; she’s an exposed nerve, craving, but terrified of, new feelings.
While the play is set in the US, its topic hits close to home: abortion is still a crime in New South Wales, and the process of safely terminating a pregnancy across Australia is fraught with legal and bureaucratic restrictions. While it might seem extreme to watch two girls try to cause a termination through brute force, it’s not an uncommon or foreign occurrence.
Dry Land is a public reckoning with the experience of being a young woman, and at Kings Cross Theatre, Sydney’s theatrical social conscience, it’s especially confronting. It’s a tricky and cramped space inside a pub, but Isabel Hudson’s design plays cleverly into this: the cool locker room tiles and benches feel appropriately claustrophobic. There’s nowhere else for us to look – we must reckon with the fact that Amy will have to suffer an abortion here in this little room.
When Amy and Ester are alone onstage during the play’s bloody climax, it’s as though all air has been sucked out of the room. To say that it’s a visceral moment is not an exaggeration – in fact it might be an understatement. This is a play that you can feel collide with your body. You might sweat, you might have goosebumps, you may feel clammy or sick. It’s a clear-eyed reminder of the reality of some women’s bodies: the amount of emotional and physical labour undertaken by women who menstruate and have children, but also the ways in which all women’s bodies are co-opted to serve male social, religious and conservative agendas: through sex, through violence, through manipulation. Our bodies are frequently not our own.
Beyond their physical bodies, Amy and Ester’s lives are also deeply impacted by the superstructures that place men in positions of power and control over women. Amy has secret depth and ambition even her best friend doesn’t know about; to survive in a world that values women as objects means dumbing herself down in public. Ester has her sights on a swimming scholarship, but a rigorous, Svengali-like former coach has left her with physical and mental trauma. The time she lost to recovery has also made all but one talent scout lose interest in her as a prospect.
Spiegel intersects these stories of bodies placed under extreme stress due to hostile takeover with another, broader theme: near the play’s end, a scene focuses on Ester’s school assignment on the occupation and colonisation of Florida’s swamplands. As she dutifully describes how its First Nations inhabitants were killed and the natural beauty of the state built over for the sake of industry and commerce, a larger pattern emerges: there are long lines of sorrow, power, authority and oppression in all our history books; our patriarchal, societal beginnings have perpetuated both environmental and personal wounds.
Dry Land offers no solution to these deep-seated failings of our social structure. There are no solutions to give. Rather, it shows us the truth of two women in crisis - their strength and their distress, yes, but also their irrefutable, invaluable humanity.
A cautionary note: the theatre runs warm, the content of the play is intense, and there isn’t much room between seats. You might want to take off your winter jacket before the play starts, and if you’re the squeamish sort, maybe a glass of water. There was a (minor!) fainting incident on opening night.