‘Dry Land’s’ devastating silence

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The most powerful, and devastating, scene I’ve seen in the theater this year happens without a single word of dialogue.

If you know me, that should not come as a big surprise. I’m a firm believer in the power of a silent actor on stage. What’s striking about the silent scene in “Dry Land,” which closes this weekend at the Echo Theater Company, is how loudly its silence speaks.

In my review several weeks ago, I hinted at the scene’s power but there’s no way to talk about the heart of this play without giving away the its essence: the worst kind of theatrical spoiler. Rather than rob an audience of that discovery, I chose to remain silent. Now with closing weekend upon us, you’ve either seen it or will likely miss it (or maybe be so intrigued that you rush out to see it with a Brechtian sensibility of already knowing the drama that’s about to unfold).

The scene happens just after the plays gruesome, graphic climax is, at least on the surface, nothing more than a janitor cleaning up. But to understand the profundity of the scene you need a little context. “Dry Land” is a play about two girls on the high school swim team, Amy and Esther. Amy  is pregnant and definitely doesn’t want to be. In the opening scene, she asks Esther to punch her in the stomach in the hopes of ending her pregnancy. This does not work and after getting Esther to steal her mom’s debit card, Amy gets an abortion pill. She takes it, has nowhere to go, and ends up in her one refuge – the swim team’s locker room.

What happens next is graphic and daring for playwright Ruby Rae Spiegel and the Echo Theater Company to put on stage. We, in the audience, watch these two young women deal with an abortion. There’s blood, there’s pain, there’s shame, and it’s profoundly disturbing and powerful. We experience these high school students dealing with life alone. It’s a difficult scene to watch.

It’s the scene that comes next that will take your breathe away and transform what could have been simply sensationalism into something profound.

It’s a simple, almost pedestrian scene. After the two girls leave the locker room, what’s left is a mess.  There’s blood, bodily fluids, and newspaper that the girls tried to use to contain the mess.

Into the locker room comes the night janitor (we met him briefly as he poked his head in to tell the girls he had to lock up in an hour). He’s an older white man wheeling a familiar mop bucket janitor cart. He walks into the locker room, sees the mess… and what’s so powerful is everything that he doesn’t do. He does not  yell. He does not wonder. He barely even grimaces. He takes out his smart phone, which for an instant we think may lead to a call or maybe an awful photo of the mess, but no. He simply puts on an old R&B song and he cleans up the mess. He does it cautiously, carefully. The scene unfolds over several, very patient, minutes. It takes as long as it takes to mop up a bloody mess. He wrings the mop. He goes over the tiles until they are clean.

It’s devastating.

It’s the kind of scene that, on one level, makes no sense. Why bother with it? Isn’t it wasted stage time? We already know what happened.

Rather than being extraneous, the scene not only takes responsibility for the play’s graphic nature, it also lets the abortion sink in. We as an audience are not allowed to dismiss it and get on with the next scene. We have to sit there and watch this mess get cleaned up. It’s the inhale to the play’s exhale.

The janitor, played brilliantly by Daniel Hagan, serves as a one man chorus. But what’s shocking is what he doesn’t do, what he doesn’t say. It’s a beautifully restrained performance because it allows room for the audience to project into his actions, to fill in what’s missing. His lack of protest, absence of shock, lead us to a more disturbing reality: this isn’t the first time. We see through his workman like focus on the mess at hand that there have been others. Suddenly, a discrete tragedy echoes and we wonder what else this janitor has seen? What other tragedies has he had to clean up?