Kathryn Erbe portrays a sorrowful mom in Daniel Talbott’s new drama
BY MICHAEL SOMMERS
OFF BROADWAY REVIEW
Rattlestick Playwrights Theater gives Daniel Talbott’s “Yosemite” a handsomely-produced premiere at its same-named theater, where the new drama opened on Thursday: Sensitive staging by Pedro Pascal, commendable acting, supportive design.
The play itself is a drag. A study in modern-day misery, “Yosemite” is not so much a drama as the gradual revelation of a bleak situation involving a tragic woman and her three children.
The kids are discovered in a snow-frosted wood in the Sierra Nevada mountain range in California. The eldest, Jake, is a teenager and he is digging a hole. His tween sister, Ruby, huddles on a log, cradling a small bundle wrapped in plastic. Behind them, their younger brother, Jer, idly fools around with twigs and bits of detritus.
As the youngsters talk and squabble, we learn that they are secretly burying an infant brother who died from neglect in his crib.
We also learn that their lives are wretchedly spent in a rundown trailer with a no-good stepfather and a stricken mother, Julie, who apparently has never recovered from her beloved husband’s death.
Halfway through the 80-minute piece, Julie arrives, looking strung-out and carrying a rifle.
Although Julie soon removes the bullets from the gun, the threat of violence lingers. While Julie and Jake erupt at one point into a bitter confrontation, much of the dialogue between the mother and her kids dwells upon the happier times they formerly shared.
The playwright often employs brief, repetitive sentences to lend a sense of wintry poetry to his sorrowful situation. Certain reflections – trips to Disneyland, an encounter with wild horses at the beach – tend to be hackneyed, unfortunately, while the passive, despairing quality that pervades the vignette grows wearying.
If the role of Julie seems underwritten – her dissolution particularly -- the frail intensity of Kathryn Erbe’s pensive portrayal helps to vitalize this grieving character, who represents quite an acting contrast from the self-possessed Detective Alexandra Eames that Erbe plays on “Law & Order: Criminal Intent.”
Dressed in shabby mufti out of a Goodwill box by designer Tristan Raines, Seth Numrich (Jake), Libby Woodbridge (Ruby) and Noah Galvin (Jer) offer quietly persuasive variations on unhappiness.
Sets that realistically depict the woodsy outdoors are tricky; especially in small theaters. Often the trees don’t look natural, the ground cover appears artificial, the distant vistas too painterly or abstract. Here, designer Raul Abrego fittingly delivers a snowy brown and white setting that looks beautifully grave. The lighting by Joel Moritz and sound design by Janie Bullard lend subtle support to this desolate occasion.
“Yosemite” continues through Feb. 26 at Rattlestick Theater, 224 Waverly Place, New York. Call (212) 279-4200 or visit www.rattlestick.org.