“Punch me.” These are the opening words of Dry Land, the play by Ruby Rae Spiegel currently in its west coast premiere. They are spoken by Amy (Teagan Rose), a high school swimmer, to her new friend and teammate, Ester (Connor Kelly-Eiding) in the locker room. Why does Amy want to be punched, specifically in the stomach? Because she is pregnant and desperately resorting to unconventional methods to abort her baby.
Spiegel, who wrote this play at age 21 and will surely continue to be a name we talk about for many years to come, got the initial idea from a New Republic article entitled “The Rise of DIY Abortions.” Dry Land premiered Off-Broadway in 2014 to rave reviews before finding its way to Los Angeles’s Echo Theater Company and the Atwater Village Theatre. Directed by Alana Dietze, this heartfelt, moving, sometimes difficult to watch play is impressively taut and gut-wrenching throughout, with not one moment in its 100 minutes wasted.
While Amy’s predicament is revealed in practically the first seconds, the details of Amy and Ester’s complicated friendship are rolled out much more slowly. The natural assumption, considering the incredibly serious and important task Amy has recruited Ester for, would be that they’re best friends, but that is not actually the case. Amy has a best friend, Reba (Jenny Soo), but Reba’s dad is a dentist, which is too close to the Florida doctor community for Amy to feel comfortable (or so she says—it seems more likely Amy just doesn’t trust Reba, who comes off as a bit conceited and abrasive, with something so delicate). Ester is the new kid at school, having recently transferred for complicated reasons that are gradually revealed. She is desperate for a friend, and also a genuine and kind person, so it makes perfect sense why Amy would latch on to her in her time of need.
One of the things that makes Dry Land work so well is how perfectly Spiegel nails not only the voices of the high school-aged characters, but the general feeling of being in high school. The girls in the play are often just as concerned about being liked and finding the right party to go to this weekend as they are about getting accepted to college. Amy and Ester’s complicated friendship felt so real in both its vulnerability and the way they can so easily be so cruel to one another in the way only high school girls can. While abortion is certainly a major plot point, and one the play handles with an impressive amount of care and respect and never shames, Dry Land is really a story about young female friendship, and how important that can be at a pivotal time in life.
Much of the success of this production lies in the phenomenal performances of Rose and Kelly-Eiding, who create a bond and characters so real you nearly forget you’re watching a play and not just eavesdropping after swim practice. The cast has some supporting players as well—Soo is hilarious as Reba, a typical, shallow high schooler primarily used as comic relief. Ben Horwitz has one memorable and charming scene as Victor, a boy Ester meets and bonds with while on a college visit. Rounding out the cast are Daniel Hagen as the school janitor and a rotating cast of young women as other members of the swim team.
As you may expect from a work that begins with one character violently and repeatedly punching another in the stomach, this play is not for the faint of heart. It holds nothing back in terms of Amy’s self-abortion journey, culminating in a visceral, brutal, graphic scene where Ester stays by her side as she allows an illegally obtained abortion pill to take effect. It’s nearly impossible to watch. This is followed by a shockingly lengthy sequence of the school janitor listening to music on his iPhone while cleaning up the aftermath in the locker room. While I initially pondered the point of such a seemingly mundane scene, I came to understand it was crucial, both to give the audience time to digest and to drive home the point that while the problems and situations faced by Amy and Ester may seem extraordinary, their lives are ultimately quite ordinary, and a life-altering moment for them can be washed away without a trace by a janitor’s careful mop in minutes.
This is what I meant about this impressive work not wasting a moment. Similarly, the lone detour outside of the locker room for the scene where Ester visits a college may initially seem out of place, but it’s in fact critical in showing us who Ester is. Until that point, we only see her with Amy, and Amy’s larger personality and larger problems have a tendency to swallow Ester until she nearly ceases to exist. It is nice to see her in a moment where she is not solely focused on her friend, and it adds important context to the pivotal sequences that come afterwards. Similarly, the play continues on for longer than expected after the central conflict is resolved, but this only emphasized that despite earth-shattering personal events, life goes on. Cruel as it may seem sometimes, the world keeps turning, and all we can do is lean on each other to move forward.
Dry Land runs at the Atwater Village Theatre through May 15th with performances Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, and Sundays at 4pm and 7pm. Tickets are $25 and can be purchased at www.EchoTheaterCompany.com.