With the recent openings of “The Children” and “Dry Land,” area theaters continue to launch their seasons on a high note — or, depending on how you look at it, a culturally attuned “low” note, one befitting their creative mandate.
The Arvada Center is leading the way with Stephen Sondheim’s “Into the Woods” (through Oct. 9). Curious provokes with “Heroes of the Fourth Turning,” Will Arbery’s big, chilling reunion of the alum of a fictional Catholic college (through Oct. 15). The Denver Center’s theater company introduces audiences to playwright Lloyd Suh, staging the historically smart and smarting “The Chinese Lady,” about the first female immigrant to the United States (through Oct. 16).
Each production sparkles, sparks or both. Even Sondheim and James Lapine’s musical about wishes, fairytales and growing up imparts plenty of lessons (but they’re so delightful you may forgive their sting).
Now. two new regional premieres are strutting their theaters’ ambitions. If you see them in proximity, as I did this past weekend, they also speak to each other. Or, at least, reverberate with overlapping concerns, as the title of British playwrighting firebrand Lucy Kirkwood’s “The Children” attests.
In Ruby Rae Spiegel’s devasting, infuriatingly timely “Dry Land,” the children in question are two teenage girls trying to end an unintended pregnancy. In Kirkwood’s spectacularly eloquent and biting drama “The Children,” three nuclear physicists reckon with their responsibility to not just their own children, grandchildren and future generations but also to the workers at the failed nuclear plant that they helped bring online.
“Dry Land” at the Benchmark Theatre
A whip-smart soundtrack that harkens back to Bikini Kill and early Liz Phair played before the curtain rose for “Dry Land” at Lakewood’s Benchmark Theatre. It had less riot grrrl guitar clangor but plenty of edge and plaint. The young (masked) women in the row behind me commented on nearly every song as if to declare, “This is so my playlist.”
Not yet 30, playwright Spiegel is likely their generational peer, and “Dry Land” — with its young protagonists and vividly wrought high school cruelties and confusions — should make a good if harrowing argument to nascent theatergoers that there’s intimacy and urgency to be had for them in theater’s black boxes.
“Dry Land” opens in the locker room of a Florida high school. With its tiled shower stall, gray lockers, blue walls and white towels hanging from hooks, Merit Willey’s set is a spot-on place to spend time with varsity swim teammates Amy (Aria Summer Wallace) and Ester (Sophie Berger).
When we meet them, the seeming mean girl and her minion are acting out a bizarre ritual. Amy asks — OK, demands — that Ester punch her. Each successive blow to Amy’s abdomen lands harder as Ester gets her “back into it,” to quote Amy. Amy has a bestie in fellow swimmer Reba (Karen Gonzalez), but her father is a doctor. With no access to a legal abortion without her mother being notified, Amy drafts the new, mousy, seemingly friendless girl. Over the course of the play, they’ll consider detergent pods, gulping vodka and other non-medical interventions.
Actors often direct other actors in ways that leave room for them to dig deep. Sometimes it’s too much leeway (a slew of movies prove it). But “Dry Land” director Abby Apple Boes, an esteemed local actor, has clearly provided her young leads a net; she’ll catch them if they plummet. They don’t.
Instead, Wallace and Berger impress as dynamic opposites. Amy is confident, until she’s not. Ester is often cowed but she can and will roar. Over the course of their clandestine locker-room meetings, we detect the fissures in each of their facades — and maybe the trajectory of their futures. There is no shortage of shame to overcome here and a dearth of adult supervision, let alone nurturing.
“This is not going to be an easy play,” you’d be right to think early on. And then keep wondering, as Amy and Ester’s complicated relationship unfolds. “Dry Land” joins a slew of plays and TV shows written by women about how very cruel, occasionally kind, and profoundly hungering teenage girls can be. Think Square Product’s summer production of Clare Barron’s “Dance Nation,” or Sarah DeLappe’s “The Wolves,” or the Showtime series “Yellowjackets” — each written (or, in the case of the TV series, shaped by white female creatives).
We never meet the guy who got Amy pregnant. Intriguingly, the two men we do meet provide the audience respite (uneasy and quietly potent) from the ferocity of the girls’ locker-room machinations.
When Ester heads to Florida State University for an athletic scholarship tryout, she’s chaperoned by slightly older student Victor (Stevie Wise in a sympathetic turn), who used to live in her and Amy’s town. And actor Peter J. Hughes brings a monk-like attention to the play’s wrenching quandaries as the janitor responsible for the maintenance of the locker room. Some theatrical scenes are so unsettlingly significant that they lodge like a splinter for days after seeing the work. The janitor’s hushed labor in the aftermath of the play’s grueling, graphic climax is such a scene.
“The Children” at BETC
If “Dry Land” hurls toward a bloody conclusion, the Butterfly Effect Theatre Company’s production of “The Children,” directed by Stephen Weitz begins with some bloodletting of its own, or at least a bloodied nose.
When Rose (Gin Walker) surprises her old colleague Hazel (Martha Harmon Pardee) at the cottage that Hazel and her husband, Robin (Sam Gregory), moved into shortly after a recent nuclear power-station catastrophe, Hazel greets her with an off-stage blow to the nose.
The blow was accidental but hardly incidental. Because as Kirkwood’s play about a vexed triangle of nuclear power physicists progresses, it’s clear Hazel has likely always wanted to give Rose a sock in the nose.
The two women act oh-so-polite but don’t much care for each other and certainly have no clue what their lives have been like for the decades that have passed since they worked together at the power station on England’s coast. Rose asks about Robin and Hazel’s daughter Lauren, not knowing there were three more children, and then grandchildren. Hazel fishes around for information about another of their group, Douglas, but there’s no bait to be taken.
From the start, an audience member could reasonably harbor the suspicion that Rose’s visit has ulterior motives and that she and Robin share some clandestine attraction. Our hunch is confirmed in silly, hilarious ways that might have had “The Children” devolving into a parlor comedy. But it doesn’t — and can’t. The stakes are too high.
Kirkwood took her inspiration (if that’s the right word) from the earthquake and subsequent tidal wave that rocked the Fukushima nuclear power plant in 2011 and led to a nuclear disaster on par with that of Chernobyl. And “The Children” finds the three — with Rose as catalyst — asking what the legacy of their work at the plant is now that it is ringed by an exclusion zone. Who are they responsible to?
There will be meltdowns — emotional and existential — as this fleet one-act drama at Boulder’s Dairy Arts Center proceeds. As for its trio of actors — among the area’s finest — they are terrifically nimble portraying brainiacs who are experts with theorems and calculations but less deft (or so it initially appears) with the work of being loving, courageous adults.
IF YOU GO
“Dry Land.” Written by Ruby Rae Spiegel. Directed by Abby Apple Boes. Featuring Aria Summer Wallace, Sophie Berger, Karen Gonzalez, Stevie Wise and Peter J. Hughes. At Benchmark Theatre, 1560 Teller, Lakewood, through Oct. 8. benchmarktheatre.com
“The Children.” Written by Lucy Kirkwood. Directed by Stephen Weitz. Featuring Sam Gregory, Martha Harmon Pardee and Gina Walker. Presented by Butterfly Effect Theatre Company at the Dairy Arts Center, 2590 Walnut, Boulder, through Oct. 8. betc.org or thedairy.org
Subscribe to our weekly newsletter, In The Know, to get entertainment news sent straight to your inbox.