“The Children” at BETC and Dry Land at Benchmark pack a punch

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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

Aria Summer Wallace as Amy in Ruby Rae Spiegel’s “Dry Land” at the Benchmark Theatre. (Michael Ensminger, provided by 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.

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