by MAUREEN LEE LENKER
Connor Kelly-Eiding volunteers with an organization called L.A. For Choice, where she serves as an escort at women’s health clinics, acting as a buffer between female patients and protesters. Her experience with the organization has amplified her desire to speak out about abortion rights — and to participate in plays like Dry Land, which help to educate audiences about the complexities of women’s rights issues.
“Hearing the bizarre rhetoric from the protesters has been enlightening,” she explains, “because I didn’t realize people like that existed in liberal LA. So in that sense, I’ve gotten to hear what ‘the other side’ believes, and it’s just so far removed from reality that it’s appalling.”
Indeed, avoiding the oversimplification of these issues — and of women in general — seems to be at the very heart of Ruby Rae Spiegel’s Dry Land, now making its West Coast premiere at Echo Theater Company. The play depicts the lives of two young women — Amy (Teagan Rose) and Ester (Connor Kelly-Eiding) — who are grappling with abortion, depression, and isolation. Spiegel wrote the play when she was just twenty-one, still an undergraduate at Yale, after coming upon a 2012 New Republic article entitled, “The Rise of DIY Abortions.”
Director Alana Dietze, who is also the Echo’s literary manager, says that Spiegel’s ability to authentically capture the voice of young women drew her to the play. She reflects on Spiegel’s storytelling, which is both deeply personal and engages with larger contemporary issues, praising her lens, which she describes as “simple and sweet, but also raw and brutal and visceral.”
Dietze and her two leading ladies, Rose and Kelly-Eiding, all proudly proclaim themselves feminists. They, too, felt drawn to the play because of its effectiveness (and nuance) in addressing issues that are at the forefront of contemporary political conversations.
Kelly-Eiding remarks on how crucial it is that women’s stories and voices be given equal play: “Because we’ve seen male experiences in art and literature so many times, we believe that those are the universal experiences, and that women’s experiences are niche experiences. And that’s not true — it is all relatable and real and truthful and important.”
Dietze also takes care to stress that even more than the issue of abortion, which sits at the heart of the play, Dry Land is affecting because its realistic capture of the teenage experience. “It’s not just a female play, it’s not just a play for women,” Dietze says. “It’s a play for everyone who’s been lonely. And everybody’s been lonely.” For Dietze, it’s not an “issue” play so much as it’s an opportunity to authentically present the struggle of these characters.
With a distinct, frank voice, Spiegel addresses abortion from the stance of practicality and access, rather than morality and legality. For Amy, it’s never a moral dilemma, so much as a foregone conclusion — it’s a matter of how and what physical trauma she might endure, not whether her choice is “right.” There is never another option on the table.
For both actresses and director, the play is a chance to impart understanding at a time when DIY abortions are on the rise due to decreased access and attacks on resources, like Planned Parenthood. Dietze also cites Jenny Slate’s film Obvious Child as an influence on her reaction to Dry Land.
“I felt like it was the first time I’d seen an abortion story that had a happy ending that wasn’t a happy ending where she decided to keep the baby,” she says. She also cites a Buzzfeed article featuring sharing their abortion stories in a few sentences — all remarkably varied. Telling Amy’s story with emotional honesty, she says, began with reflecting on these other voices, and using them to inform her directing process.
Rose, who plays Amy, used a variety of individual narratives in her research. She met with two women who had experienced abortion.
“When you look at these women, you don’t see abortion written all over their bod[ies]. They’re just women. They’re living their [lives].” She adds that this realization was crucial to portraying Amy — that her character’s need for an abortion (and her reaction to this choice) is not her singular character trait; she is messy, full of contradictions, vulnerable, sometimes cruel. In short: Amy is a dynamic, and real, person.
Rose hopes audiences connect to Amy and Ester’s story in a way that allows them to understand girlhood and abortion from a new perspective.
“There is an idea that either you have an abortion and then you’re fucked up for the rest of your life, or you do it and then it’s just this huge relief. Which, both of those things can be true at the same time,” she says. “This play opens up the conversation and pulls away the veil of how life does go on. It can be a defining moment in someone’s life, and it might not be at the same time.”
Dry Land pitches you into the experience and trauma of female adolescence unflinchingly. Spiegel holds a mirror up to the scars of our own teenage experiences, whether or not they run as deep as Amy and Ester’s troubles. And this seems the goal of the play — its cast and creative team — and of feminism: to make the female experience valid, personal, relatable, and vital.
NOW PLAYING: DRY LAND by Ruby Rae Spiegel at Echo Theater Company, through May 15.
Ester is a swimmer trying to stay afloat. Amy is curled up on the locker room floor. The Echo Theater Company presents the West Coast premiere of Dry Land, the riveting play by newcomer Ruby Rae Spiegel that has critics and audiences across the U.S. abuzz. Set in the locker room of a central Florida high school, Dry Land is a haunting new play about female friendship and abortion.