Dallas — There are some bloody scenes that are more difficult to watch in live theater than on film, and that doesn’t mean violent slasher-killings and zombie head-smashings, which have desensitized even the most squeamish among us.
One such scene happens late in Ruby Rae Spiegel’s 2014 play Dry Land, which deals with an unwanted pregnancy from a member of a high school swim team. Beginning with the first lines of the 100-minute, intermissionless play, having its area premiere by Upstart Productions, mother-to-be Amy (Caroline Hamilton) seeks ways to not be pregnant—aside from actually having an abortion, which her parents (and the father) would surely find out about.
“Punch me,” she implores of her friend Esther (Zoe Kerr), who takes several shots at Amy’s stomach before finally hitting hard enough to make Amy buckle in pain. Amy will later do vodka shots and smoke cigarettes before that aforementioned scene, which plays out in harrowing, bloody detail in set designer Darren Diggle’s girl’s locker room—bathroom stalls and all—which is impressive considering it has been created in an empty warehouse in Trinity Groves.
In director Sarah Lacy Hamilton’s poetically paced production, Hamilton and Kerr handle this lengthy scene with maturity, but it’s still hard to watch. In my case it was peeking through the fingers covering my eyes. (Kudos to special effects designer Patrick Ham.)
Dry Land, a Susan Smith Blackburn Prize nominee that was on the 2014 Kilroy’s List as one of the most recommended new plays by female and trans authors—created in response to the lack of women's voices in American theater—is a play that deals with one of the most controversial issues in America: abortion. It’s a pro-choice play, given Amy’s hesitance to have that official procedure because of how it would affect the rest of her life, but Spiegel offers no answers, only the results in this set of circumstances for these characters.
But this is also a sensitive play about the interpersonal relationships between girls of a certain age, where emotions and loyalties can change with little-to-no warning. Much of the time Amy and Esther gab about what you’d expect in a typical conversation between teenage girls: schoolwork, boys, life after high school. They do stupid things that most of us did as foolish youths, such as crack offensive jokes that now make us cringe.
In other words, Spiegel captures truthful moments from ordinary lives. The best one comes in a scene away from the locker room between Esther and Victor (Joshua Kumler, charmingly awkward), a boy she meets on a trip to visit a potential college.
As the determined Amy, Hamilton is ball of conflicting emotions as she follows the roller coaster world of being a high school girl who is popular and still wants to impress her peers, but also knows she’s destined for a more meaningful life—and motherhood may not happen for several more decades. Kerr gives one of the best, most honest performances of the year as the girl who will be there for her friend no matter what—even after betrayal. She's adept at conveying nuance through unspoken reactions to others.
Producer David Denson has chosen to use metal bleachers for the audience seating in the warehouse he has temporarily named the Upstart Natatorium (interestingly, given the play's title, the space is located just on the other side of the Trinity River levee, which was flooded just a few months ago). The seating idea is clever, but fair warning: bring a cushion. There are a few other chairs available on the sides, where sightlines might not be as great.
That discomfort is nothing compared to the squirming you’ll do during that one scene, though; or the gut-punch you’ll feel when it’s all over. If it’s still making you squirm days and weeks later, Dry Land has done its job.