ONSTAGE Grace Ng played Wilhelm, the lead, in the Shotgun Player’s recent production of The Black Rider. So when the theater held auditions for its current play, Dry Land (through June 23), she decided to try out even though she had scheduling conflicts: her brothers were both graduating on the East Coast, one with a PhD from Harvard and the other from medical school. (Ng herself was considering going to grad school for theater, and wanted to take a break before starting.)
After auditioning, she got a call that night to tell her she got the part. Patrick Dooley, Shotgun’s artistic director, called the next day to see if she could work out the conflicts in her schedule.
“He said, ‘We want you for Ester,’” Ng said. “I said yes, and I totally don’t regret it.”
Dry Land is set almost entirely in a girls’ locker room in suburban Florida. Ester and Amy (played by Martha Brigham) are teammates on a swim team. Ester is hoping for a college scholarship and Amy wants to get through an unwanted pregnancy. Ruby Rae Spiegel wrote the play when she was 21 and a student at Yale.
Dry Land has gotten a lot of attention, with the New York Times describing it as “tender, caustic, funny, and harrowing often all at the same time” and Berkeleyside calling the Shotgun production “honest, meaningful, and intense.”
In the play, Amy enlists Ester’s help in trying to terminate her pregnancy in ways she read about online. “Punch me” are the first words spoken, by Amy asking Ester to punch her in the stomach. The intensity doesn’t let up from there.
Ng said when she first read the script, it felt very fast-paced.
“It was kind of surreal, but the dialogue felt very real,” she said. “It’s like a whole high school relationship packed into an hour and thirty minutes.”
Ng says she likes playing Ester, the serious, lonely swimmer looking for a scholarship and wanting some attention and validation from Amy.
“There’s a lot I really enjoy, sharing the complexities of womanhood and how much is expressed without being spoken,” she said. “I think about the relationships we went through in high school, and how much harder it was to deal with not being able to express ourselves as we do now as adults. It’s still hard now.”
Ng says both the best and most difficult thing about doing the play is how demanding it is.
“I like how much energy and focus it requires of me—it takes all of me,” she said. “You have to be in a good headspace before the play. It begins with a boom, and you have to carry that from start to finish. You’re establishing a high pace from the very beginning.”
The cast members have spent a lot of time discussing what happens in the play, particularly a harrowing scene that involves blood and suffering.
“It’s so emotional every night, but we’ve had so much time to unpack it with the table work and the rehearsal,” Ng said. “We’ve had a month and a half of talking about it.”
Younger people seem to appreciate the play, Ng said.
“At an audience preview a teenage boy got up and gave a standing ovation,” she said. “He was just clapping really loudly. I’m glad we can share stories with teenagers that are so closely resonating with them.”
The director of the play, Ariel Craft, says she loves working on a show that broadens the idea of female-driven stories.
“This is a story about two women’s journey to self discovery that really complicates how we think about women,” she said. “It includes cruelty and violence, which are a part of any human’s experience, but usually not portrayed as part of women’s experience. It thrills me to pieces to get to do this show.”
Through June 23
Shotgun Players, Berkeley
Tickets and more info here