SMALL-TOWN CLAUSTROPHOBIA: Rufus (Nathan Darrow), back home for a visit from New York, and Mary (Kristen Bush), still living in the small town where they grew up, share memories, hopes, frustrations, and gummy worms in McCarter Theatre’s production of Rachel Bonds’ “Five Mile Lake,” playing at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre through May 31. © T Charles Erickson
“Where does one get to with your heroes?” Leo Tolstoy complained about his Russian contemporary Anton Chekhov,” from the sofa to the outhouse and from the outhouse back to the sofa again.” And audiences might well make a similar complaint about the characters and plot of Five Mile Lake, Rachel Bonds’ new play (which premiered at South Coast Repertory in California a year ago) now at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre through May 31.
Not much seems to happen or change for Ms. Bonds’ five troubled, frustrated, young characters, but the greatness of Chekhov and the power of Ms. Bonds’ play lie not in sensational plot twists or dramatic events, but rather in the subtleties of human behavior and the understated relationships and interactions that can quietly shape people and their lives. Ms. Bonds’ characters, all struggling to work through the demands and disappointments of early adulthood, reveal themselves gradually, realistically, through what looks like casual dialogue, but resonates with realism and emotion.
The richness here lies often in the subtext — what is not said, rather than what is said — as these characters in their gestures, intonation, body language, facial expressions, perhaps a quick glance or movement — display their deepest selves and greatest needs.
Five Mile Lake takes place in a small town near Scranton, Pennsylvania in seven short scenes (just one hour and 40 minutes of uninterrupted running time), that occur over a period of several days in winter. Jamie (Tobias Segal) and Mary (Kristen Bush), both approaching 30, run the local bakery/coffee shop. Jamie never left town because he loves the beautiful lake and he is in love with Mary, and his ambitions lie locally: fixing up his grandfather’s house that he has inherited on the lake, taking care of his mother — and winning Mary’s attention and affection.
Mary, however, still dreams of escape from the claustrophobia of small-town life. She feels trapped, and is currently taking care of her brother Danny, who is back from two military tours in Afghanistan, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and struggling to get a job and lead a normal life. A cross country runner in high school, Mary has found her runs becoming shorter and shorter as her world shrinks and her life becomes more limited. She yearns for an escape.
Near the end of the first scene, Jamie’s brother Rufus (Nathan Darrow) and his girlfriend Peta (Mahira Kakkar) arrive from New York on an unexpected visit that will unsettle the worlds of Mary and Jamie. Rufus is unsuccessfully trying to write his PhD dissertation, and Peta is an assistant magazine editor. They come out to Rufus’ old hometown and the house he co-owns with Jamie (but seldom visits) in order to “work on their relationship.”
Tension is high from the start — Between Jamie and Mary, between the two brothers and between Rufus and Peta, whose relationship, we discover, is seriously troubled. There is an immediate attraction between Rufus and Mary, who share an affinity for the larger world beyond the confines of Five Mile Lake, and that attraction proves seriously upsetting to both Peta and Jamie.
Five Mile Lake is about the difficulties of entering adulthood, about ambitions and about small-town life versus the allure of the big city. It is about memories and regrets, about establishing relationships, and finding a path forward towards fulfillment.
Though “nothing happens” as the scenes move back and forth between Jamie and Rufus’ lake house and the coffee shop, the four protagonists, all convincing, credible individuals, become more and more intriguing as we learn more about their pasts, their present fears, and their dreams for the future.
The character of Peta, the least thoroughly developed of the four principals, would be interesting to know in more depth and detail — as would the relationship between the two brothers. It’s difficult to believe these two actually grew up together in the same home, though maybe that’s the point, as these estranged siblings struggle in vain to make connections with each other in the face of so many barriers and so much time apart.
Near the end of the play, as Mary and Jamie are preparing to open the coffee shop for the first customers of the day, Mary relates a story about a figure skater on TV, who, near the finale of what would have been a spectacular performance, misses her landing. “You can see something breaking in her,” Mary reports, “–it’s like this little crack running down the side of a teacup, just this terrible sense of failure like running across her skin. And she’s thinking, I missed it. I missed it.”
As Ernest Hemingway described in A Farewell to Arms, in the context of World War I, “the world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places.” The cracks in Five Mile Lake, some more subtle than others, appear in all of the characters — “something breaking,” some wound from the past that does not fully heal, something they’ve “missed.”
Ms. Bonds’ script that, like Chekhov and Hemingway at their best, is rich in its reticence and its unadulterated realism, along with these highly committed, capable, focused actors under the wise, loving, scrupulous direction of Emily Mann, ensure that audiences will care about these people. Even the occasionally arrogant, insensitive Rufus and Mary’s volatile brother Danny (Jason Babinsky), in a supporting role, win over the audience. We care deeply about these characters, worry about them, wonder where they’re heading as the play ends. To establish that degree of audience engagement is an extraordinary accomplishment for playwright, director, and performers.
Production values here are exquisite, most notably Edward Pierce’s meticulously realistic set design, with lighting by Jeff Croiter, to create the detailed scenes inside and outside the bakery shop and also inside and outside Jamie’s lake cabin. The turntable revolves with impressive efficiency and style to shift venues seamlessly and convincingly.
Tolstoy and his preferences for high-action drama notwithstanding, Five Mile Lake provides a moving, memorable evening in the Berlind Theatre. Rachel Bonds is a young playwright whose work will surely be staged frequently in the future.
Rachel Bonds’ “Five Mile Lake” will run at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre through May 31. Call (609) 258-2787 or visit www.mccarter.org for tickets and information.