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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Seth Numrich, Kathryn Erbe, Noah Galvin, and Libby Woodbridge
Photo by Sandra Coudert.

A visit to Rattlestick Playwrights Theater these days may leave you wondering whether you've come inside at all. The set on the stage there, for Daniel Talbott's play Yosemite, looks like something you might find wandering through Central Park on a frigid weekend afternoon. Dense foliage, dirt, and logs, all dusted with a thin cover of snow, scream sub-freezing temperatures; the white sky of the backdrop and the leafless branches that define both the trees and the ground, are enough to convince you that this is one winter from which life will not return. This is not an entirely inappropriate conclusion given what Talbott's written or what Pedro Pascal has directed, but one suspects that neither intended their work to be quite as barren as it is.

Over the course of 80 bombastic yet plodding minutes, the design is about all you've have left to hold onto. Raul Abrego's set, Joel Moritz's piercing gray lighting, and Janie Bullard's haunted-forest sound set the scene, the tone, and stakes better than anyone else can manage. You're given the distinct impression that in this world, nature, rather than humanity, is in ultimate control of fate, and there aren't many options other than seeing where it takes you. For the four characters, all from one tragedy-riddled family, who have come into the woods to bury a secret and unwittingly unearth themselves along the way, this has potential, but Talbott fails to develop it into compelling drama.

Most of the action, in fact, concerns the digging of a hole: how deep is deep enough to keep the animals away, what will be done with the dirt excavated, where do the uncovered rocks belong, and so on. This task is the chief province of Jake (Seth Numrich), the eldest son, who's come to this remote clearing with his sister Ruby (Libby Woodbridge) and brother Jer (Noah Galvin) to permanently hide the only thing that could bring more shame upon their family than poverty, living in a trailer, or even Jake's backseat dalliances with the high-school whore. That would be Nathan, the trio's baby brother, who recently died accidentally, and who needs to be disposed of for the safety of those left behind.

This is underscored by the eventual appearance of the children's mother, Julie (Kathryn Erbe). She arrives, shotgun in hand, to check in on them, but ends up inciting more anger and outrage about their upbringing and future (or lack thereof) that they'd all prefer remain hidden. She hasn't recovered from the death of her husband or accepted that her life and offspring haven't been as perfect as she once dreamed. And, of course, in trying to remedy the untenable situation they're all in without the proper sensitivity, she only makes their situation worse.

Julie's confrontations with the kids, particularly Jake, and their long-lasting repercussions, are obviously intended to be piercing and harrowing. But they lack almost any tangible emotional impact, for two key reasons. First is that the overall lack of specificity makes it impossible to take anyone seriously. Why they're burying Nathan, how they could expect to get away with such a ghastly act, and for that matter how he died are questions that Talbott doesn't even try to answer; if the entire work is intended to be an allegorical representation of great American white trash, the absence of any sweep or grandeur, even the most down-and-dirty kind, keeps the fuller vision from emerging.

Second, the writing simply isn't good enough. In his play Slipping, which premiered at Rattlestick in 2009, Talbott displayed a keen talent for presenting flashes of insight while unintentionally presenting spoken and unspoken uncertainty as if it were a verbal wasteland of stutters and pauses. The trap he falls into here is similar, but slightly different: The characters are most effective at explaining themselves when they say the least, but whenever the rage gets turned up, primarily in two exchanges Jake has with his sister and then his mother, there's a lot of shouting and (literal) dirt-flinging that's littered with obscenities, but no sense of what the outrage is supposed to communicate.

It must be said that this is no way the fault of the performers, all of whom are focused and committed to their portrayals. Numrich, late of War Horse, is excellent at conveying the leaking soul of an emotionally hollowed-out teenager; and Erbe tempers Julie's distant resentment with the proper dose of too-processed brightness. They're believable as both individuals coping with layers of troubles, and a family struggling to understand how to live together, which certainly helps fill in a lot of the gaps in Talbott's writing and in Pascal's pace-challenged staging.

But even the best actors can only do so much. These characters are too sketchy to come alive, and Talbott's one-dimensional view of this family in crisis trumpets its emptiness too loudly for you to care about how they could escape from their hopelessness, and the lack of any richness in the writing means you cannot be elevated by their myriad losses. You're ultimately left feeling exactly what they do: nothing. That's a tough hook on which to hang any play, but it can work when concept, execution, and message unite. They never do, and never even come close, in Yosemite.

Through February 26
Rattlestick Theatre, 224 Waverly Place
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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