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Over-the-top teen angst in Shotgun Players’ ‘Dry Land’

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Martha Brigham, left, and Grace Ng play distraught high-schoolers in “Dry Land.” (Courtesy Ben Krantz Studios)

Unwanted pregnancy, confused sexuality, the yearning for a sense of belonging and identity and love — all can be part of a teenage girl’s coming-of-age, making for a fraught, if not downright miserable, adolescence.

Such is the case for the two main characters in Ruby Rae Spiegel’s “Dry Land.” The drama, now at Shotgun Players, opened in New York when Spiegel was only 21, which explains why the situations, the dialogue and the emotional instability (the lack of safe “dry land”) of high school swim teammates Amy and Ester ring painfully true.

“Punch me … harder!” commands tough, dominant Amy (a wonderfully complex and committed portrayal by Martha Brigham) at the beginning of the play, to Ester (Grace Ng, excellent in her transformation over the course of an hour and 40 minutes, with no intermission).

They’re in their school locker room, in bathing suits. Amy has chosen the eager-to-please Ester to help her self-abort. On some intuitive level, the troubled Amy knows that her best friend, shallow Reba (a finely tuned turn by Amy Nowak), would be the wrong person to aid her on this painful journey.

Amy is embarrassed to admit she wants to be a writer and worried that she’s seen as a slut; yet her behavior is self-defeating on all levels.

For her part, Ester has high aspirations as a competitive swimmer. She feels her future is currently at stake: an important swim test looms.

Both girls are lost, anxious, even desperate, and need each other in ways that become apparent as the play continues. You feel for both of them.

Still, the talented Spiegel is biting off a huge chunk here. The focus on Amy’s ongoing efforts to lose her baby (she has lots of pretty good reasons why she can’t go the legal-abortion route) sends the delicate relationship drama into a direction that feels artificially sensationalized and overrides the play’s deeper truths.

And, presumably to match Spiegel’s tendency to over-theatricalize, there’s a fevered intensity to the action in director Ariel Craft’s deeply empathetic production — a tendency to force the humor and the pathos — that’s also unnecessary.

Two quieter scenes, one with Adam Magill as an awkward college kid, the other with Don Wood as the sad but stoical school janitor, provide relief.

It’s as though playwright and director don’t quite trust that we understand and are fully involved in the plight of these vulnerable young women.

REVIEW
Dry Land
Presented by Shotgun Players
Where: Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley
When: 7 p.m. Wednesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays; closes June 17
Tickets: $25 to $42
Contact: www.shotgunplayers.org

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