Friday, April 4, 2014
The Ties That [Sometimes] Bind
Rachel Bonds’ Five Mile Lake may be thought of as a family play, but unlike most examples of that genre—which has dominated American drama since the great foundational plays of Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams—Five Mile Lake includes no parental characters and (perhaps partly as a result of that) no rafter-rattling emotional displays. Still, the influence of absent mothers and fathers has much to do with the dynamics that play out among the two pairs of siblings on whom this gentle story hinges.
As the play opens, we discover Jamie and Mary—who work together in a bakery in a small Pennsylvania town—engaged in the kind of banter we imagine they’ve exchanged every day for years. We can also feel that something is going on beneath the banter for both of them. Jamie’s affectionate teasing has a puppyish, attention-seeking quality, suggesting he may feel more than camaraderie for his attractive coworker. But Mary’s clipped responses offer little in the way of encouragement; something is clearly eating at her. Is it the fact that her brother, a veteran of the conflict in Afghanistan, still hasn’t found a job and is forced to rely on her for room and board? Or might there be more to it than that?
Before any hidden truths can come to light, Jamie and Mary’s ordinary day is suddenly turned upside-down by the arrival of Jamie’s older brother, Rufus. Rufus, whom Jamie hasn’t seen in well over a year, has unexpectedly driven down from New York—with his girlfriend, Peta, in tow—to spend a few days in his hometown. He has stopped by the bakery to pick up the keys to the old lake house the brothers inherited from their grandfather. But Rufus’s planned getaway meets a setback when he learns that Jamie now lives in the lake house and is spending his free time renovating it from top to bottom.
This means the brothers must spend a lot more “quality time” together than either of them had bargained for. During their long night of drinking beside the lake, we begin to understand the ties that bind them together, as well as some of the factors that have brought on a passive estrangement between them.
At the heart of that estrangement is the fact that Jamie is a “stayer” and Rufus is a “leaver.” Jamie has never had any desire to stray far from the small town in which the brothers grew up; he welcomes the sanctuary of home and family, and nowadays restoring the old lake house has become his consuming passion. Rufus, on the other hand, never liked the town, the lake or the lake house, and couldn’t get away fast enough when he came of age. Now he’s pursuing his PhD in the big city, and failing to return his brother’s calls or to stay in touch with his mother, who asks Jamie about Rufus every time Jamie drives her to one of her frequent doctor’s appointments. Neither brother understands the choices the other has made: but at the same time neither is fully content with the life he has made for himself. As they move beyond anecdotes and pleasantries, under the influence of the whisky and the cold night air, deeply buried resentments and insecurities bubble to the surface.
The next day Mary is visited at the bakery by her brother, Danny, who announces that he has been offered a job. Rufus drops in, looking for Jamie, and his unnerving reunion with his old friend, Danny, makes it clear why Mary would welcome the possibility of freeing herself from the obligation to care for her brother. Like Rufus, she has never liked her life in this small town, but family responsibilities have kept her tied down. Now Rufus’s surprise return—combined with Danny’s job prospect—presents her with a possible avenue of escape, which opens up when she and Rufus have a heart-searching conversation and discover just how much they have in common.
As the play continues to unfold, we learn that Rufus’s penchant for leaving hasn’t gone away since he left home. Back at the lake house his girlfriend, Peta, is feeling abandoned in more ways than one, and is beginning to wonder just what kind of foundation their relationship is built on. When she unburdens herself to Jamie—a man she has just met for the first time—the network of emotional fault lines among these five characters comes into sharper focus.
Rachel Bonds is a relatively new arrival to the American theatre scene, but she already shows a well developed appreciation for the complexities and nuances of character, the potency of subtext and the rich dramatic value to be mined from ordinary lives. A New York Times review of an earlier Bonds play praises the “sublime tone” of her work, an acknowledgement that atmosphere and a sense of hidden-ness are as important to her plays as character, story and dialogue.
Although its fault lines hold a great deal of unrelieved tension, Five Mile Lake will not culminate in a world-altering earthquake. Its tremors are smaller, subtler, further beneath the surface—but no less unsettling in the truths they reveal about the complicated psychology of human relationships.
Read an interview with playwright Rachel Bonds
Read another interview with Rachel Bonds
Read The New York Times review of Bonds’ earlier play, Michael and Edie
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