How Water Speaks to Rock
@ Meymandi Theatre at the Murphey School Auditorium
Through Oct. 12
The N.C. Arts Council provides funding for theatrical endeavors in various ways, as evidenced by the NCAC logo on many playbills, but not often do we see the results of that funding as a distinct whole.
Last year, Durham playwright Miriam Angress—by day, she is an editor at Duke University Press—won an NCAC fellowship based on the draft of her new play, How Water Speaks to Rock. She has used the cash grant to stage her work in the Meymandi Theatre at the Murphey School. Now we can see clearly what the state believes to be some of the most important new dramatic art in North Carolina.
Set in an "alternate version of now," which is only slightly different from the one in which we live, the play involves several plot lines tangling like the vines that literally cover the terrain of the set. This vine invasion has the people on edge. The vines are wrapping around everything and even disrupting e-mail communication. They've trapped the Sarker organization's ships in the clogged harbor, and now an escaped Sarker harbors in a garden shed, emerging from behind the viny veil to startle teenage Jen, our heroine, whose Environmental Defense-type lawyer brother has just been kidnapped by other Sarkers. These Sarkers are a something like Greenpeace sailors crossbred with EarthFirst maniacs, and their behavior is remarkably like that of the pirates currently working off the coast of Somalia (as usual, it is not possible to imagine anything more preposterous than reality). There's another story line involving Jen's estranged parents and her father's former lover—oh, and Father's been running for president, until his son is kidnapped and he holes up alone to nurse the "dream infection" that's running through the population like an epidemic flu.
Angress' play has many merits; however, brevity is not among them. She works at huge themes, prodding the values of endurance, constancy, loyalty, forgiveness and reconciliation to see if they hold up under the stress of ecological apocalypse and personal desire. The play has some fine writing and is studded with the trenchant ("The mystical glory of the earth has passed on. We went to its funeral at the mall."), the mordant ("Lately I have the impulse to walk into traffic and see what happens.") and the exasperated ("I think worlds without otters suck!").
But at two hours and five minutes, there is more of it than the structure can bear. This would be a better play were it cut by a third—or if it were staged in a manner that kept it flowing faster. The script appears to have been written with cinema in mind, rather than live stage. There is no sustained action, but rather innumerable brief scenes bracketed by the actors running on and off the stage. These short takes would work on the screen but drag on the pace here. Much of the scene-changing could be accomplished with lighting, thus reducing dead time between scenes and preserving momentum.
The production's success rides on the remarkable performance by Emily Rieder as Jen. This UNC-Greensboro graduate, now trying to break into a New York career, came home to Raleigh for this production, and even if there were no vivid writing, it would be worth going to see her storm through this part with the mercurial passion of a 16-year-old, the grace of a cougar and the perfect diction and vocal skill of someone trained by Christine Morris. She expresses the passionate heart of Angress' work, and she looks like an actor of whom we will want to say, I saw her when.