BWW REVIEWS: DRY LAND and I AND YOU Delve Deeply into Teen Anguish

DRY LAND

Written by Ruby Rae Spiegel; directed by Steven Bogart; dramaturg, Jessie Baxter; scenic design, Courtney Nelson; lighting design, Daisy Long; costume design, Miranda Kau Giurleo; sound design, Andres Duncan Will; media design, Matthew Gray; special effects design, Lynn Wilcott; properties design, Sarah Winters

Cast:

Amy, Stephanie Recio; Reba, Alex Lonati; Ester, Eva Hughes; Victor, Kadahj Bennett; Janitor, Paul Trainor; Swim Team, Sophia Koevary, Lauren Miller, Ashley Wisneski, Karoline Xu

Performances and Tickets:

Now through October 30, Company One, Plaza Theatre, Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street, Boston; tickets are $25-38 ($15 for students) and are available online at www.bostontheatrescene.com or by calling 617-933-8600.

It's tough enough for the average teenager to keep her head above water given the stresses of dealing with schoolwork, peer pressure, emerging sexuality and identity crises. Add an unwanted pregnancy, a predatory swim coach, and distant parents to the mix and a lonely adolescent can feel like she's drowning.

Such is the world for the troubled Amy (Stephanie Recio), the rebellious yet fragile high school senior at the center of Ruby Rae Spiegel's unflinching new play DRY LAND now in its New England premiere at Company One Theatre in Boston. Daring to go beyond the sound-bite politics of pro-choice vs. pro-life advocates who debate the issue of abortion in a vacuum, DRY LAND portrays the very real pain, anguish, uncertainty, and terror teens face when believing their only option in terminating a pregnancy is to do it themselves.

Amy is a member of the high school swim team, a tough-talking "bad girl" whose promiscuous persona masks a multitude of insecurities. Her only friends are her teammates Reba (Alex Lonati), the "popular" one, and Ester (Eva Hughes), the "star" whose abilities may earn her an athletic scholarship to a college in Florida. Ester ends up being the one Amy chooses as her confidante, and together they embark on a traumatic journey from innocence to adulthood. As they turn to the internet to research gruesome ways in which to abort Amy's fetus, they begin to share personal secrets that break down walls and draw them closer together. In a gut-wrenching climax that is as graphic as it is emotional, the two become forever bonded, if not physically then at least spiritually.

As Amy, Recio is a bundle of nervous contradictions, bragging about her sexual conquests one minute and recoiling from the pain of rejection the next. Her relationship with Eva is also one of push-pull contrasts. She can lacerate brutally with her whip-like tongue when feeling vulnerable only to tease playfully at their next encounter. Recio makes her Amy both dangerous and childlike, able to draw blood quickly without warning then resume her previously narcissistic attitude as if forgiveness were somehow not warranted.

Hughes's sensible Eva is the perfect calming foil to Recio's distraught Amy. She quietly endures Amy's onslaughts while gently offering steadfast support. Hughes also subtly hints at Eva's own inner demons, hunching her athletic frame defensively against some unseen aggressor whenever discussions get too personal. She seems to be simultaneously girding herself against some outside attack and keeping powerful internal memories at bay.

In support, Alex Lonati is perfectly self-indulgent as the party-girl Reba, while Kadahj Bennett as college freshman Victor connects sincerely with Eva on her visit to campus for her swim trials. Bennett walks the fine line between being respectful and interested. He comes across as shy but not introverted, friendly but not intrusive. His gentle empathy also engenders Eva's trust, allowing her to unlock some of her feelings and gain confidence in her own worth.

Populated with real and recognizable young adults dealing with the real and unvarnished issue of abortion, DRY LAND is a notable new work by the 22-year-old Spiegel. It combines biting humor with stark realism and brings the troubled inner worlds of two outwardly "normal" teens vividly to life. Although some of the play's dialog and plot points seem to unfold like items on a teen angst checklist, the power of the truth at the heart of the piece is undeniable.

Every day children who are old before their time are thrust into the deep end of the emotional pool, so to speak, left to sink or swim on their own devices. Amy and Ester are two such survivors. While DRY LAND doesn't end with a promise of happily ever after for either of these young women, it does leave us with a sense of hope that they both have learned to do more than just tread water.

PHOTOS BY PAUL FOX: Stephanie Recio as Amy; Eva Hughes as Ester and Stephanie Recio; Stephanie Recio and Eva Hughes; Stephanie Recio and Eva Hughes

I AND YOU

Written by Lauren Gunderson; directed by Sean Daniels; scenic design, Michael Carnahan; costume design, Jennifer Caprio; lighting design, Brian J. Lilienthal; sound design, David Remedios

Cast in Order of Appearance:

Caroline, Kayla Ferguson; Anthony, Reggie D. White

Performances and Tickets:

Now through November 1, Merrimack Repertory Theatre, 50 East Merrimack Street, Lowell, Mass.; tickets are $23-60 and are available online at www.mrt.org or by calling 978-654-4678.

As with DRY LAND, the teenaged heroine in Lauren Gunderson's remarkable new play I AND YOU is forced to deal with adult situations ahead of schedule. Suffering since childhood with a disease that has placed her on the liver transplant list, Caroline (Kayla Ferguson) spends most of her time in her attic bedroom connecting to her classmates and teachers via her laptop, Facebook and smart phone. Shrewd, sassy, and unapologetically angry, Caroline vacillates between thoughts that are realistic, morbid, and fanciful. She knows all too well that her odds for survival are minimal, but the flicker of hope that burns quietly inside her is just as powerful as the caustic bravado that keeps her plowing through each dark day ferociously.

On one particular afternoon Caroline is paid a surprise visit by a classmate, Anthony (Reggie D. White), a studious doctor's son and basketball player who has volunteered to partner with her on an English project. Knapsack, notebook, and Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass" in hand, he can't wait to delve into Whitman's poetry with her. Unfortunately, Caroline doesn't share Anthony's enthusiasm for the bohemian writer Anthony has dubbed "National Badass." As his unbridled poetic passion gets continually hammered by her vitriolic disdain, comic sparks fly, eventually leading to deeper spiritual understanding.

On the surface Caroline and Anthony couldn't be more different. She loves rock 'n' roll, he's an aficionado of improvisational jazz. She lives through social media, he prefers to engage with the person who's physically in the room. She's a terrific visual artist, he's a gifted wordsmith. She lives every moment in the present, he seems to revel in the glories of the past.

What draws them together, ultimately, is Anthony's straightforward curiosity about Caroline's illness and mortality - and his willingness to listen without offering sugar coated platitudes in return. Without deflecting or romanticizing, the two are able to move beyond the safety of their typical teenage bickering to begin to delve in earnest into the meaning of death. Anthony uses Whitman's "Song of Myself" as a focal point in their discussions, and when Whitman's words finally click for Caroline, she unleashes her own celebratory primal "barbaric yawp."

While I AND YOU deals with issues that teens often think about but rarely discuss, the play is ultimately a celebration, not a dirge. The more Anthony and Caroline get to know each other, the more at peace they are with their common ground. The specter of death becomes their equalizer; Whitman's words their window into eternity.

In Caroline and Anthony, Gunderson has crafted two highly complex and authentic individuals who speak for themselves and not the playwright. Her dialog is smart and funny but never self-indulgent. With every off-hand revelation or subtle turn of phrase she takes the audience deeper and deeper into her characters.

That Ferguson and White are able to make Caroline and Anthony's journey so believable is a testament to Gunderson's writing, Sean Daniels' direction, and their talent and trust in the material. Ferguson and White are present in every single moment of I AND YOU, establishing their own unique personalities and reveling in their discoveries about each other and themselves. Never do they telegraph what's coming next, and when the fateful twist in the story is suddenly revealed, the audience lets out a resounding collective gasp.

It is only then that we realize how much we have come to love these two wonderfully vibrant teenagers. On the surface it may seem as though we have shared nothing more than selfies, Elvis, Coltrane and Whitman with them. But in a deeply affecting 90 minutes, removed from the world below in a music and memento-filled attic, we have managed to share a lifetime, as well.

I AND YOU will transfer Off-Broadway to the 59E59 Theatres in New York City in January 2016. The MRT cast, creative and design team will move with it.

PHOTOS BY MEGHAN MOORE: Reggie D. White as Anthony and Kayla Ferguson as Caroline; Reggie D. White and Kayla Ferguson; Reggie D. White and Kayla Ferguson

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From This Author Jan Nargi

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