Dry Land & What Every Girl Should Know
by John Stoltenberg
I’ve seen some harrowing-to-watch theater in my time, but I recall nothing as excruciating as a particular scene in Dry Land, now running at Forum Theatre. The play by Ruby Rae Spiegel is set in the present in a girls locker room. The scene in question is between two members of a swim team, 17-year-old Amy (Emily Whitworth) and 18-year-old Ester (Yakima Rich). I won’t disclose what happens or why. But be forewarned that when you witness this breathtaking work, you will see a scene that will stay with you. It is devastatingly visceral and shatteringly well performed. It is a scene that must be seen and cannot be unseen.
The writer knew this climactic scene would stun. She follows it with two slow scenes to allow the audience time to recover. Even then, by the time Dry Land ends and the house lights come up, the gut punch is not gone.
If there were a Helen Hayes Award for Best Partnering by Two Actors in a Single Scene, Whitworth and Rich would win it in a walk By rights Playwright Spiegel and Director Amber Paige McGinnis should be up for awards as well.
The qualities I admire in this production begin with Spiegel’s script, which is tightly written, tough-minded, and intense. It is also wickedly witty. Spiegel captures the banter among girls with an unerring ear for the idiom of teens diving headlong into a world they know not yet how to navigate.
Here for instance is an early scene between Amy, who is pregnant and trying not to be, and Ester, who wants to seem as worldly as she. Amy is sitting on the floor in the locker room with a copy of Playboy.
AMY: I got the magazine from the boys’ locker room. It’s porn.
AMY: Come sit.
[Amy pats the ground next to her. Ester sits a little far from Amy, maybe because of the porn.]
AMY: The boys’ locker room stinks.
ESTER: That’s what I’ve heard.
AMY: There were some moldy shorts in the corner.
ESTER: How’s the porn?
AMY: Kind of gross. But also kind of hot.
They chat for a moment about other things then resume looking at the magazine.
ESTER: She looks like she was made in a wax museum.
AMY: That’s all the airbrushing.
Remember when I told you what it felt like when I was a cheerleader? It’s what it feels like to be this girl. Like all bent over and shit. Like sexy but also really ugly because it’s sex and sex is ugly.
ESTER: I don’t think sex is ugly.
AMY: You’ve had sex?
ESTER: One time. On a trampoline.
AMY: Shit. Really?
What was it like?
ESTER: A little bouncy? But also nice I guess.
Though the main conflict is a trust/distrust drama between Amy and Ester, there is also a third swim team member, 17-year-old Reba (well played by Thais Menendez). And two male roles add yet more dimension to the narrative: 20-year-old Victor (an appealing Christian Montgomery) and a dutiful Janitor (Matty Griffiths) who does not speak but helps lift the heavy silence that falls after that scene I did not describe.
Dry Land is performed in rep with What Every Girl Should Know, a title taken from a pamphlet by Margaret Sanger first published in 1913. Playwright Monica Byrne imagines a girls dormitory in a Catholic reformatory in 1914. There are four beds in it belonging to 14-year-old Lucy (Yakima Rich) and three 15-year-olds, Anne (Thais Menendez), Joan (Lida Maria Benson), and Theresa (Emily Whitworth).
Offstage is the unseen chaplain Father Dolan, whom Theresa describes as “a very young priest, very well educated and progressive and kind; and rather handsome.” One by one, every Saturday night, the girls give Confession to Father Dolan. He keeps a bowl of oranges outside the confessional for his nubile penitents. Given this sketchy setup, which is described early in the play, one might suppose that conduct unbecoming a cleric is in the offing. And one would not be wrong.
Once the story line of serial statutory rape takes hold, the play becomes gripping. If one can stay patient during the long, languid time the playwright takes to get there, an affecting payoff awaits.
To be fair, the play hints at what’s to come. Joan, for instance, has this speech about her experience in the confessional with Father Dolan:
I confessed my sins, truthfully, and then he told me about Joan of Arc, and how she was proud like me, but that her pride was also a gift from God. And that it only mattered that she used it the right way. But even aside from that…it’s how gentle he is. I didn’t know a man could be like that. When I came here, I thought, men were like weapons and women were like wounds. That nothing stops them from getting in if they want to. That’s what it is to be woman—to be born already split open, like a carcass.
But sharply written speeches like that are the exception. Where the writing in Dry Land is tight and intense, the writing in What Every Girl Should Know feels loose, aimless, and unfocused. For most of the play we are treated to what amounts to an extended period pajama party during which the girls tell tales and dance rituals and speak in jarringly contemporary slang that keeps disrupting the play’s time frame.
Curiously it is the girls’ reverence for Margaret Sanger that most anchors the play. They regard her as a saint, and believe that she will save them. Theirs is the faith of the lost, the hope of the doomed. And a genuine sadness sets in at the end when it becomes clear that these ebullient girls have no safety where they are and no realistic future in the world outside.
Forum Theatre is to be commended for programming these two plays, together dubbed #NastyWomenRep. Though the plays will inevitably be compared, both should definitely be seen. That one is not the equal of the other matters less than that both tell stories with a fierce honesty every girl needs to grow up a nasty woman.
Running Time for each play: 90 minutes, without an intermission.
Dry Land & What Every Girl Should Know play in rep through April 15, 2017, at Forum Theatre, performing at the Silver Spring Black Box Theatre – 8641 Colesville Road, in Silver Spring, MD. For tickets, call (301) 588-8270, or purchase them online.