On Mar. 3, Ruby Rae Spiegel’s play Dry Land opened at Pomona College’s Allen Theatre. Written during Spiegel’s senior year at Yale University, the play was a finalist for the 2015 Susan Smith Blackburn prize for playwriting. The plot revolves around two teenage girls navigating a maze of emotional and physical obstacles, the foremost among them being an unwanted pregnancy.
And while it is, by definition, a play about abortion, Dry Land is much more nuanced than that.
It’s about the times when a teenage girl’s body becomes a battleground, both physically and mentally. The pregnancy and subsequent abortion are graphic from start to finish: the play opens with one girl, Ester (Aurora Brachman PO '17), punching her friend Amy (Margaret Austin PO '16) in an effort to induce a miscarriage. Later, climactically, Ester holds Amy as she gives birth to a premature fetus—the product of what the girls term “the Internet pill.” In another, more nuanced subplot, hints of Ester’s eating disorder appear in the dialogue between the two characters, as does her growing confusion about her sexuality.
It’s about growing up in the prototypical teenage wasteland: cigarettes, sex, taking shots in the locker room. There’s a striking dichotomy of mundanity and catastrophe; even in scenes where the girls are getting ready for a party or a swim meet, a sense of unease hovers just below the surface. There’s comic relief—dancing, period jokes—that can, at any second, lapse into solemnity. “Sometimes, I think I can hear its heart beating,” says Amy suddenly in one such moment.
It deals with the delicate balance between life and death but never becomes overtly existential. In the scene breaks, an ultrasound is projected onto the back wall, accompanied by the muffled sound of a heart beating. The embryo is an unspoken, unnamed 'it' whose presence evokes a sense of hopelessness and quiet desperation in both the characters and the audience.
It’s a play about reproductive rights, and the physical and emotional trauma that Amy endures because she doesn’t have access to a safe abortion procedure. It doesn’t lecture or preach; it just tells the story of a young girl who finds herself scared and alone and unsure of what to do.
But most of all, Dry Land is about secrets—the secrets we hide, the secrets we carry, the secrets that spill from our lips at the most inopportune of times. And at its most fundamental level, even the play itself is secretive—it ends before the end, with much of the plot left unsaid. A young girl sits in a locker room with her back to the audience, relieved only of her physical burden.