Thursday, February 9, 2012

Review - "Yosemite" (Rattlestick Theater)

Review by Olivia Jane Smith
Photos by Sandra Coudert
If a family came crashing down like a giant tree in the desolate winter mountains of northern California, would it make a sound? Not if it doesn’t have enough of a story behind it to give its members’ experiences a shape and trajectory, to take them—and us—someplace further than where we started. The doomed siblings and mother we meet in Daniel Talbott’s Yosemite at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater are given life by four talented actors, each of whom leaves their heart and plenty of tears on the snowy stage. Unfortunately, the saddest thing here is that in the absence of a structure—and really, a plot—to hang on, these excellent performances don’t make the impact they should.
The play opens with Jer (Noah Galvin), Ruby (Libby Woodbridge) and Jake (Seth Numrich) in a 1000-year forest somewhere in the region of the national park of the title, gorgeously rendered by scenic designer Raul Abrego. When illuminated by Joel Moritz’s lighting design, the set looks like a diorama from the Museum of Natural History. This scene is populated; not by elk or bears, however, but by three children frozen more deeply than winter mountains’ chill could make them. The red-cheeked Jer, who looks around middle-school age, is sitting on a log in a knit hat with a pom-pom on top, looking numb, intently but absently playing with a twig. Ruby, who seems to be the middle child, is clutching a black plastic bag to her chest with such intensity it looks like she is praying over it, or willing it to dissolve into her and disappear. Jake is digging, stopping periodically to cough hard, his body trying to shake something out that is not going anywhere.
It is quickly revealed that the bag contains a dead baby—their little brother—and that their mother has told them to come out to the woods, dig a hole, and bury him. Jer and Ruby pass the bundle back and forth as if it’s still a living breathing infant, and Jer cradles it in his arms. It’s never clear how the baby died, though Jake at least is convinced he perished from neglect. “I don’t think he felt it. I don’t think it hurt,” Ruby says. It’s also not clear how this mother convinced her children, two of whom are all but grown-up, to undertake such a grisly task, one they know they shouldn’t be doing. At one point Ruby says something to the effect of, “Does she think people just won’t notice the baby is gone?” Jake in particular is seething at their mother to the point of bursting (which he does later), and yet he is the one out there digging. (Later Mom shows up with a gun, which may be the reason her children concede to do her dirty work.)
Bits of information about the family trickle out. Dad has died. Stepdad receives mixed reviews. Jake is smart in school, and works part-time in a Chinese restaurant. Ruby loves the food there, but Jake is worried she is going to get fat and no one will love her, the subtext being that she’ll end up no better off than they are now, living in a trailer and getting handouts from a local church. Jake wants to move in with a friend and get Grandma to take Ruby and Jer away, and Jer clings to the fantasy that maybe they can all go with her to Disneyland. Disneyland is certainly about as far away as possible from where they are and what they’re doing now.
The isolation and quiet of the scene is so complete that when a face appears from behind a tree, it’s frightening. And it should be: We already know that it’s Mom, come to check in on how her offspring are coming along with the chore of burying her youngest son. Julie (Kathryn Erbe) doesn’t seem to be a physically abusive mother, and despite the gun, we’re never afraid she is going to finish the task of making herself childless. What is terrifying about this woman, rendered acutely and heartbreakingly by Erbe, is her quality of having been eaten away at by pain, until she’s all but already gone. Although she is still capable of emotion—of feeling more pain yet—as we see in the intense and searingly-acted confrontation with Jake that serves as the play’s peak, she is a ghost. She tells her children, “The woods are haunted—whole families, their bodies, their children, fed the trees, fed the ground.” Though she is still standing there talking, she is clearly among them.
There is some beautiful writing here. Julie tells a story of her husband, during their courtship, asking her to kiss a penny for luck and then swallowing it, telling her now she would be safe inside him. She says earlier about their having children, “He thought it was important to put part of you out there, like nature, like animals in the wild.” Later, on a family vacation, they are surrounded by wild horses. He looks at the animals and sees his wife and children in them, telling them “This is our family.”
Jake, for his part, longs for the sublime. The play is called Yosemite, and while it takes place in that vicinity, the title may refer to his school trips to the park itself, when he wished he would get left behind and get to stay there forever, dwarfed by the monumental grandeur of nature. Later he talks about the silence and wonderment of the Monterey Aquarium. An enormous sense of loss hangs over the play—the happy family that this family could never be again, long before the death of its newest member. But there is also a parallel desire for oblivion, losing oneself in overpowering landscape, as if that were the only other route to happiness or salvation.
But all this is to little effect. From the first scene, there seems to be no place for this story to go, and indeed, it doesn’t yield any surprises, any moment when we’re not fairly sure what’s coming. We feel for these kids, and Erbe even manages to make the mother sympathetic, to a degree (the situation makes this a pretty tall order). But without any real protagonist here, or any discernable journey we’re being taken on by Talbott’s play, it’s hard to feel invested. We’re not sure what we should be wanting or hoping for these characters—Disneyland?—and even if we did know, any option seems hopelessly out of reach.
Pedro Pascal directs with a spacious hand. There are moments when the characters draw into themselves and silence takes over. For me, this worked; it felt natural, even inevitable, in the context of the play, and I enjoyed watching the characters’ faces in the stillness. As Jer, Noah Galvin is particularly painful and wonderful to watch in his quiet moments, of which there are many. He captures perfectly the ability of a boy that age to put every ounce of focus into a twig as a way of coping with the unsupportable, and yet still taking everything in like a sponge, until he is as heavy as his older counterparts. Seth Numrich is both touchingly vulnerable and explosive as Jake, and Libby Woodbridge plays Ruby as lost but still somehow optimistic, the sibling hanging on the hardest to save what little they have. She talks about a woman from church coming to check on the family and make sure they’re okay. “She wondered if we needed anything,” Ruby says. Jake replies bitterly, “How about a new life?”
Tristan Raines’ costumes are convincing charity hand-me-downs, and sound designer Janie Bullard’s spookily beautiful birdcalls round out the well-designed  and executed production. It’s hard not to feel disappointed that so much talent and sweat—including those of the playwright—were invested in a script that could benefit from a lot more work. To take as a metaphor the only palpable action we see on stage, Talbott needs to keep digging. He hasn’t gone far enough yet.

Written by Daniel Talbott
Directed by Pedro Pascal
Featuring: Kathryn Erbe, Noah Galvin, Seth Numrich, and Libby Woodbridge.
Sets by Raul Abrego, Costumes by Tristan Raines, Lighting by Joel Moritz, Sound by Janie Bullard, Props by Andrew Diaz, Technical Direction by Katie Takacs
Production Stage Manager: Michael Denis
Assistant Stage Manager: Sam Horwith
January 18 – February 26, 2012
Wed-Fri at 8PM
Sat at 2PM and 8PM
Sun at 3PM

1 comment:

havers said...

Great review. I wish I could see Kathryn Erbe on stage.