Taking Responsibility

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Recently a friend invited me to speak with some playwrights in a graduate program. Conversation turned to the pitfalls of playwriting and we started talking about playwrights taking responsibility for their plays. I was struggling to articulate what that meant to me: how some playwrights committed to what they put on stage and others just included the provocative without seeing it through.

I wish I'd seen Ruby Rae Spiegel's play at the Echo Theater Company, Dry Land. It would have been a perfect and poignant example for these young playwrights.

Dry Land is a brutal and graphic play. It's definitely not a play for everyone, and if you've got young or fragile ears you might want to skip this review and the play.

On one level, Dry Land is a beautifully insightful and honest look at what it means to be a teenager -- and especially a teenage girl. I can't remember a play that looked as unflinchingly at how difficult, vicious, and joyous those formative years are.

The play takes place almost exclusively in the high school girls' swim team locker room. Our two protagonists are Amy and Ester. Amy's the cool girl, or at least she seems that way. Ester is the more awkward one. To be fair, she just moved here from Tampa. Her parents are divorced and she's trying to find her way. She's had a difficult couple of years but she loves swimming -- really loves it. She's apparently good enough to be recruited. Ester idolizes Amy in the way you idolize the cool kid . . . or maybe it's something more than that.

Amy's the seemingly confident girl. She's got a best friend Reba, who's totally too cool for both swim team and probably school. Amy knows older guys with names like "Dog." Amy's also got a couple of secrets. One, she wants to be a writer -- you know like Herman Melville. That secret's a little tender. She'd never share it with Reba but in comparison to her other secret it's nothing.

What draws Amy and Ester together is Amy is pregnant. She's in high school, doesn't want to tell her mom, definitely doesn't want to have a baby, and doesn't know what to do. So she asks Ester to punch her in the stomach.

Now, if that makes you flinch a little, playwright Ruby Rae Spiegel is just getting started. Here's where things get tough and eventually brutally graphic. Dry Land is also a play about two teenagers ending a pregnancy in a swim team locker room.

There's part of me that wants to say, "Why skew such an insightful play with something so sensational?" Because, let's face it, once the notion of a teenage abortion is on stage it's hard to focus on anything else, even the other characters.

The other, smarter, part of me appreciates the terribly courageous and artful story that both the playwright, director and brilliant cast are bringing to the stage and the profound responsibility they are taking for it.

Without giving too much away, this is a play that commits to an idea and sees it through in all its messiness and power. It's not a play for everyone, but it is a play that will move you deeply and stay with you.

Dry Land plays at the Echo Theatre Company in Atwater Village through May 15.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW. 

Photo: Connor-Kelly Eiding (sitting) and Teagan Rose in Ruby Rae Spiegel's Dry Land.