Peeling, textured plaster walls, a barely-there wire fence with a sad wood plank gate and the smell of rich dirt represent the bleak rural world where Addie (Kim Gillingham) manages a minimal subsistence. She eats worms and small birds raw, warily accepting an occasional can of beans from her crafty neighbor Weed (Christopher Boyer).
Deborah Herbert’s dingy set design and Silas Weir Mitchell’s restrained direction strip land-grabbing greed down to its simplest components in Phantom Limbs’ production of Eliza Anderson’s “The Water Principle,” at the Complex.
Plaintive in her soiled white-print dress, digging in dirt and sleeping on a primitive wood and cloth platform, Addie is fiercely protective of her land and its underground spring. She dreams about a place where there was “water to touch and geese to see” and she was left alone “with a lake of floating corpses.”
Yet she is not alone. In his black pants, black-and-white checked jacket and red-plaid vest, Weed lives a slightly better existence in an aluminum siding hovel as he plots to acquire Addie’s patch of dirt, dreaming of bulldozers and lucrative land developments.
“When a woman’s been on her own too long, her brain gets soft,” he softly insists, watching Addie slyly. “A woman’s not supposed to be on her own.” The title phrase “the water principle” refers to Noah’s example of pairing the animals up. But what happens when there are three?
Into this uneasy standoff comes Skimmer (Harris Mann), a wanderer with loose principles and lax loyalties. Weed covertly gives Skimmer beans that he mustn’t share with Addie. Addie offers the possibility of companionship.
Skimmer is a survivor; Addie, an idealist--and Weed, an opportunist. Their struggle to realize their desires brings them into a conflict where there will be no winners.
Anderson’s characters are at times excessively eloquent, talking about principles and poetic visions. Yet their intelligence pushes this into a surreal world where poverty seems a recent visitor and the desolation of this tiny realm and the isolation of its characters somewhat mysterious. Has the world reached apocalypse?
Mitchell gives us grim and grimy. The small birds are dark and the blood clotted as the people eat the pink flesh joylessly. Gillingham’s Addie has an almost illogical bond with this barren land where few birds come, but one never doubts her resolute, almost heroic devotion. Mann’s sad sack of a man yearns to settle, his eyes empty of the passion that drives both Gillingham’s Addie and Boyer’s Weed.
Anderson doesn’t preach about greed and deceit, for all three characters are deeply flawed but their motivations understandable. Anderson exposes the ease of betrayal with a clarity that cuts deep and translates easily into modern-day life.
“The Water Principle,” the Complex, 6468 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. Today, 8 p.m.; Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m. Dark Nov. 27. Ends Dec. 13. $15. (213) 203-4227. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.