And then four extraordinary actors - Kathryn Erbe, Noah Galvin, Seth Numrich, and Libby Woodbridge - entered with ruddy cheeks and running noses. Even bundled in winter gear ( A wonderfully detailed design from costumer Tristin Raines), none broke a sweat under the stage lights except for the amazing Seth Numrich, whose very physical role demanded it. Either director Pablo Pascal kept them all outside in the January air until the calling of 'places,' or they are really really good.
Yosemite is the story of three siblings played by Numrich, Galvin, and Woodbridge, who are sent into the Sierra Nevada foothills to dig a hole deep enough to bury a family secret. Jake, Jer, and Ruby are entrenched in something more than snow, and thicker than the woods around them. Of course the play is not about being cold. Nor is it about National Parks, though I do think it significant, and poetic, that this portrait of poor America is set on a Federally maintained wildlife preserve. Yosemite is really about poverty and the desperate acts it may inspire.
While so many writers struggle to respond to our era's socioeconomic issues in a profound and absolute way, Daniel Talbott simply tells us a compelling story about one very lost family. Other playwrights might attempt something more sweeping, would aim to make some grand statement by showing us a formal portrait of people who've fallen through some proverbial crack. But Yosemite ventures deeper, into an icy crevice. The folks here don't contribute to exit polls. They don't feed statistics. They don't make the headlines. But they do give us a cold hard look at today's America.
And it’s not pretty. Despite the gorgeous surroundings – and even Numrich’s fed-up character notes the beauty of the woods (It’s the ironic timing of his observation that makes it meaningful) – there’s no romancing the brutality of nature, within or without. Things get ugly, and not in an endearing ‘aren’t the country-folk adorable’ kind of way.
I hate that. I hate hearing an overeducated Manhattan audience chuckle knowingly at the charming eccentricities of non-New Yorkers acting wacky, folksy, or just plain dumb. Maybe it’s because of where I’m from, but I don’t like it when a play depicts the darker or less sophisticated parts of rural or suburban America, and then judges, or pities, or makes fun of people for their lack of urbanity. You know what I mean – plays written to point up all that’s wrong with America - ‘America’ being anyone that didn’t graduate from insert-exclusive-conservatory-training-program-here. I sit through those shows thinking ‘This is why they hate Obama.’
Yosemite doesn’t do that. For one thing, these are really complex characters, no stereotypical hillbillies here. They are written to be taken seriously, with great heart and dignity. Talbott doesn’t allow us to feel superior to them. In fact, one of my favorite moments of the play comes when middle sibling Ruby, heartbreakingly played by Libby Woodbridge , goes on a vaguely racist and rather classist rant against the behavior of some local ‘trash’ that prompts her brother Jake (Numrich) to drop his shovel and scream "We're not better!" In fact, he tells her, soon enough they'll be just the same. The story of Yosemite reminds us that with one small misstep, maybe the failure to read a faded blaze, anyone can get avalanched. You are not better than trailer-dwellers who sport Goodwill’s latest. In fact, you’re not really any different.
Having had a taste of the American dreamsicle, Talbott’s characters long for Disneyland. They’ve become disconnected from their own greatest desires. These kids aspire to the commonplace – anonymity, hourly wages, and a bunk in the back of the store. It’s the handiwork of the slightly younger of endemic poverty’s twin offspring, Disease and Despair. It kills.
So, in context, the sibling’s big secret is really less consequential than the circumstances that bore it. In fact, the scandal itself is far less shocking that the matter-of-factness with which it's dealt. It sets a tension in the way the play's characters are knit together, making the whole dynamic ripe for unraveling. That's an absolute banquet for brave actors. Yosemite’s fearless performers quite willingly hurl themselves from icy silence to full-throttle meltdown. (Please pardon all the seasonal analogies, but doing this play must feel like a ski jump or a four-man luge; once the gate comes down, you are gravity’s bitch.)
Now back to me shivering in my front row seat. I was close enough to see all the strings. I could touch the 'snow'. I could have unlaced Libby Woodbridge’s battered pink boots, so it’s not that I actually thought I was in the freezing cold Sierra Nevada Mountains. In fact, it bothers me when people say things like “It was as if I was there!” (Especially if the play is about war, ethnic cleansing, genital mutilation, or Les Miserables. Don’t lie, you did not really think you were in France circa 1788 with people singing, in English, about a bloody revolution - you’d have freaked out and strangled an usher with your commemorative 24601 souvenir t-shirt.)
It bugs me because I think it actually diminishes the work it means to compliment. It explains away the wonder, the mystery and impact - not to mention the very hard work - of what plays can do for people. I don’t want theatre to be ‘real’; I want it to be theatre. I want it to be truthful. (Which is why I bawled when what’s-his-name sang ‘Bring Him Home’ despite the fact that I was well aware of sitting in a cushy chair, in a Broadway theater, wearing an ugly tie.) The onstage replication of real life is not interesting to me. I mean, it’s cool, it’s okay, but it’s the revelation of the soul of a thing that gets me hot.
So why did my teeth chatter through this show? Was it the production’s ‘realness’ – the flawless design, the remarkably dynamic direction, some incredibly complex and nuanced performances, that snowball quality in all of Daniel Talbott’s stuff – a sense of inevitability, even in the silences, that makes an audience at once dread and long for whatever comes next…? Yeah, it’s all of that.
But, put simply, Yosemite has truth enough to make me shiver. It was the combination of a gorgeous set (which ought to be permanent displayed somewhere as art unto itself), powerfully drawn characters, passionate performances, and innovative staging that makes Rattlestick’s latest such a memorable experience. Taken all together, there’s an aching honesty in this show that I think is really exceptional. It’s not comfortable. It’s not cute. It’s really, no, it’s truly cold. And beautifully true.
Yosemite runs through February 26th at Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre. Info and tickets here.