On Theater: A 'Mile' from a decent script

Small Pennsylvania towns aren't exactly hotbeds of excitement. I know. I grew up in one.

But they're hardly as prosaic and insubstantial as the one depicted in playwright Rachel Bonds' latest effort, "Five Mile Lake," now in its world premiere at South Coast Repertory.

Like "Rest," its companion play in the annual Pacific Playwrights Festival now winding up its engagement next door on SCR's Segerstrom Stage, "Five Mile Lake," on the Julianne Argyros Stage, is set in the hinterlands and involves "ordinary" people. "Rest," however, has an arresting story line, while "Lake" could be subtitled, to paraphrase Pirandello, "Five Characters in Search of a Play."

The cast, under the direction of Daniella Topol, is quite capable. One member (Rebecca Mozo) is exceptional. But they're dealing with an unworkable script, their characters lacking not only in ambition but motivation. One of them experiences an unprovoked immersion in the titular body of water, while the others express their feelings in more pedestrian fashion.

Bonds assembles her people in a tiny, lakeside bake shop where Jamie (Nate Mooney), who has inherited the business, has the unexpressed hots for his assistant (Mozo). Without notice, his brother (Corey Brill) arrives with a British girlfriend (Nicole Shalhoub) who stirs things up nicely, though again without motivation, while Mozo's Army vet brother (Brian Slaten) also seeks his purpose on the planet.

All are quite convincing, though what requires emphasis is nebulous. The locals would like to improve their lot but lack the drive to pursue their dreams. The visitors are more animated, though their end purpose also is elusive, much like the play itself.

Mozo has an impassioned moment near the close of this mercifully brief (75 minutes) exercise. After describing an Olympic ice skater's minuscule slip-up during a superb routine she just viewed on television, she wonders, plaintively, "Is this all I get?" Meaning, of course, her inconsequential existence as a shop assistant.

Mooney's character, however, would like to enhance both their lives, but lacks the courage to follow through with his desires. He has plenty of ambition and drive when it comes to improving the bake shop itself, but pursuing his romantic dreams is another matter. The final scene may or may not signal an advancement in this area — Bonds leaves it up to her audience to decide.

More animated are the characters rendered by Brill and Shalhoub. As Mooney's outgoing brother — who's writing his Ph.D dissertation on "communal laments in Greek tragedy and epic poetry" — Brill comes across with energy and flourish, even though his own dreams seem to be on hold thanks to a severe case of writer's block.

Shalhoub is a quite minor figure in the play until, in its most unmotivated development, she dives fully clothed into the freezing water. Rescued by Mooney, she insists she didn't intend suicide but can't come up with a credible explanation for her actions.

Slaten's characterization of Mozo's ex-GI brother is the play's most enigmatic figure. His dreams don't extend much further than Five Mile Lake, and he spends his time simply looking for work while crashing at his sister's place.

These characters, as portrayed by skilled actors, are engaging, but they require a more cohesive written environment in which to flourish if "Five Mile Lake" is to extend beyond its initial production at South Coast Repertory.

TOM TITUS reviews local theater for the Daily Pilot.

If You Go

What: "Five Mile Lake"

Where: South Coast Repertory, Julianne Argyros Stage, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

When: 7:45 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 7:45 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through May 4 (no 7:45 p.m. show on May 4)

Cost: Starts at $22

Information: (714) 708-5555 or http://www.scr.org

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