(Costa Mesa, CA) April, 2014 – Since the announcement of its golden anniversary season last year, South Coast Repertory had one remaining spot to fill for the Argyros Stage line up. Along with Tartuffe on the Segerstrom Stage, this play—a new work—would serve as SCR’s finale. Two months ago, Five Mile Lake was announced as that play to complete the Argyros season. Its scribe, Rachel Bonds, has been receiving critical acclaim for her previous work on the East Coast. SCR Associate Director John Glore commented, “Rachel has a wonderful ear for contemporary dialogue and a keen eye for the details and nuances of character.” After the debut of Five Mile Lake, this observation is, without a doubt, accurate. However, Bonds’ latest work about individuals who are “stayers”—people who are content with their present circumstances and surroundings—and “leavers”—people who crave the adventure of a larger world to accomplish large dreams—is still underdeveloped and loses focus near its conclusion, preventing the play from being a profound Argyros lineup finale that SCR needs for its golden anniversary season. Despite its structural blemishes, Five Mile Lake is still a crowd pleaser with its sharp dialogue and naturalistic acting.
Jamie (Nate Mooney) is a perfectly content young man. He is manager of a coffee shop in a small town near Scranton Pennsylvania, exchanging playful banter with his friend and colleague Mary (Rebecca Mozo), who he is also attracted to. He is now owner of his lakeside family home, which he has been patiently and meticulously remodeling and expanding, solidifying his roots even more, having no intention of moving away. His brother Rufus (Corey Brill), on the other hand, is a “leaver,” not a “stayer” like Jamie. The moment the older brother graduated from high school, he left the small town life and never looked back. But after many years, he does return, this time with his London-born girlfriend Peta (Nicole Shalhoub). An academic writing his PhD dissertation on “communal laments in Greek tragedy and epic poetry,” Rufus visits the family home in the hopes of mending some emotional wounds both he and Peta have experienced. But Rufus’s flame of animosity about small town life is relit, especially when he talks to Mary, who also feels trapped and dreams of escaping the small town. But her brother Danny (Brian Slaten), who lives with Mary, is trying to adapt into society again after serving two tours in Afghanistan and is still on edge from his experiences during the war. Mary’s love and devotion to her brother results in a type of emotional claustrophobia, which Peta also feels regarding a selfish relationship with Rufus and a stifling relationship with her parents. All these feelings erupt, with Jamie being at risk of having his harmony shattered forever.
Bonds’s creative voice is one of the finest this season has to offer in terms of her fluidic, extremely naturalistic dialogue and for detailed development for most of her characters. Along with Daniella Topol’s subtly nuanced direction, Five Mile Lake is an…average work. However, Bonds makes a fatal flaw in the middle of the play by shifting the focus too much from the leads—Jamie and Rufus— to the supporting players Mary and Peta. Bonds establishes Jamie and Rufus nicely in the beginning, but she fails to explore even more why Rufus is a “leaver” and especially why Jamie is a “stayer.” Rufus’s ambition is indicated, but Jamie is so unbelievably passive that his presence almost disappears from the stage. During a confrontation scene, there is a hint that their parents served as a major influence in their respective behaviors. But this needs to be explored a lot more in order to generate more understanding and sympathy for Jamie. This is not to say that the scenes and monologues belonging to Mary and Peta need to be reduced. On the contrary, this play—which runs 95 minutes with no intermission—is at a perfect length. But there is a sensation that Bonds has a more thorough understanding about Mary and Peta’s conflicts than her two male leads.
There is one simple solution to this problem: the elimination of Danny as a primary character and simply have him mentioned in the play’s dialogue. This is not due to Slaten’s performance; he expertly combines a good natured charisma with a hair-triggered intensity. But Danny appears in only one scene and the overall presence of this character is felt quite strongly without him appearing on stage. And Mozo’s finely-tuned performance as Mary, who describes Danny’s behavior in vivid, meticulous detail, is the reason for this conclusion. Whenever she talks about her brother, Mozo adds layers of love and fear. Her portrayal brings Danny to life; that is enough. And her longing to escape from her past and present situation is an agonizing journey into frustrated hopelessness. By substituting 7-10 minutes of Danny’s scene with another scene that involves both Rufus and Jamie, delving into their motivations more about what they love about “staying” or “leaving,” especially with regard to their parents, then Five Mile Lake can be the little gem it aspires to be.
As with Mozo and Slaten, the remaining actors also accomplish in bringing Bonds’s world to life even more. Although limited because of Jamie’s lack of development, Mooney is extremely likable with his “aw shucks” demeanor and a sense of general humility regarding his accomplishments with his home. He reveals some compassionate strength towards the end of the play when he confronts Mary about her frustrations regarding living in a small town. Brill’s Rufus is a symbol of arrogant, academic elitism, until he shows his shattered weaknesses to Peta, admitting that his hard work is for naught. But Shalhoub’s Peta is a true dynamo that practically ignites from the page and the stage. She masterfully intertwines a dry, biting wit with a passionate wounded desperation. Bonds should actually use this character as a lead for another play because of Peta’s no-nonsense strength, humor and compassionate vulnerability, all of which Shalhoub patiently reveals one layer at a time.
Regardless of the flaws, Bonds does prove that she is a match for her SCR contemporaries on the Argyros stage. Hopefully, she will create another draft that will result in Five Mile Lake fulfilling its ultimate potential as a true work of theatrical art.
Peter A. Balaskas is a journalist, fiction writer, editor, and voice over artist.
Five Mile Lake opened April 13-May 4, 2014
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Costa Mesa, CA 92628-2197
Unless indicated, all photos by Debora Robinson