Five Mile Lake: Theater Review

An artful if modest examination of country versus city mores in an up-to-date context, attentively acted and directed.

An examination of country versus city mores is staged in Orange County.

Maybe you can’t go home again, though onstage that’s invariably what everyone does. Rufus (Corey Brill) left his forsaken hometown outside Scranton, Pa., to pursue his PhD in classics, while brother Jamie (Nate Mooney) remained behind to manage a donut shop and renovate their inherited old house by the titular lake. Jamie moons unrequitedly over his coworker Mary (Rebecca Mozo), who's feeling trapped after a failed engagement and caring for her traumatized and maladjusted combat veteran brother Danny (Brian Slaten).

Ostensibly, Rufus has returned less to socialize with his roots than to find a retreat to thrash out the fraught relationship problems he is having with his high-achieving girlfriend Peta (Nicole Shalhoub), a more professional sort despite her own background of disapproving parents who would rather she had chosen a suitor from their arranged list. Rufus gradually exposes himself to be stuck in an intractable funk, unable to function but sharp-tongued enough to criticize everyone else with defensive aggression.

Admittedly, this is all rather familiar dramatic territory, yet the proceedings are too alertly observed to descend to the banality of the themes, finding instead flashes of universal relevance to the vicissitudes of the far more protracted development of adulthood so common today. The least complex of the group, Jamie, is not as simple as he seems, ending up an exemplar that everyone else cannot emulate. Corey, the most complicated one, resolves fundamentally into an admittedly ineffectual jerk with a drinking problem. The women, more intrinsically interesting because they struggle less with deficiencies of character than of circumstance, face quandaries with intelligence as well as a rueful sense of being mired with limited options unequal to their gifts and aspirations.

Playwright Rachel Bonds also seems to accept limitations with equanimity: this rather unambitious effort concentrates instead on subtle sensitivity and a compassionate tolerance for the pain of personal failings, applying a gentle wisdom and a talent for natural dialogue and persuasive interactions to reveal character. If it is not an exciting or innovative play, it does speaks clearly to life now in a conventional form that may be easy to relate to -- but does not scant the frustrating disappointment of ordinary lives.

The most singularly expressive aspect of the production is the orchestrated small gestures of the people engaged in quotidian actions. One cannot tell to what extent the inventions are those of the actors, director or playwright, but everyone manages to find profound things to do with their hands and body movements, and there is a distinct pleasure to take in performances that make their most telling points while busily enacting everyday activities.

Brill manages to remain compelling and comprehensible even while growing progressively more reprehensible in his behavior. Mozo, in what in most scripts would devolve reductively into the “ordinary girl” part, invests her rather ordinary dilemmas less with a cliched lyrical longing than a clear-eyed appreciation that she makes her choices out of an ethical and sanguinary necessity, masking a justified suppressed anger with a practical sense of difficult priorities. It’s a pity she had to leave her brilliant lead in Top Girls at Antaeus while it is still running, but characteristically the actor makes smart artistic choices that continue to enhance her ever-increasing growth in versatility with a dizzying array of roles. 

Venue: South Coast Repertory, Julianne Argyros Stage, Costa Mesa (runs through May 4)

Cast: Rebecca Mozo, Corey Brill, Nate Mooney, Nicole Shalhoub, Brian Slaten

Director: Daniella Topol

Playwright: Rachel Bonds

Set designer: Marion Williams

Costume designer: David Kay Mickelsen

Lighting designer: Lap Chi Chu

Music and sound designer: Vincent Olivieri