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Five Mile Lake — McCarter Theatre

untitled (84)Few playwrights, new or established, hold a mirror up to nature, as efficiently and compactly as Rachel Bonds.

Bonds is particularly adept at capturing human nature and its quiet, engulfing repercussions. After seeing only two of her plays, I’m considering going on a hunt to find productions of others. In “Michael & Edie,” which James Ijames sensitively directed at Villanova, Bonds was even able to incorporate fantasy in her play and make it intrinsic and organic, purposeful instead of gratuitous and showy. In “Five Mile Lake,” brilliantly mounted by Emily Mann and a unanimously laudable cast at Princeton’s McCarter Theatre, Bonds proves so deft in revealing her characters through verbal and physical subtleties, you hardly know you’re watching a play at all. Playwright, director, and cast present a refreshing, enthralling slice of life that so proceeds so naturally and with such depth, you witness people going through watershed moments of their lives but don’t detect a hint of acting or the slightest incident of histrionics. Mann’s production is so plangently realistic, even a scene of high drama, when one character literally saves another’s life and is astute about initiating a quick recovery, achieves its emotional and character-revealing high points without marring “Five Mile Lake’s” patina of ingenuous simplicity and authenticity.

The McCarter staging of “Five Mile Lake” is such a gem, if any production deserved to go straight from a regional house to Broadway, this is the one. Bonds’s subtle., arresting work is far better than any new piece I’ve seen since its diametrically emotion counterpart, “August: Osage County.” Yes, I find it superior, though different in style and scope, even to this year’s likely Tony winner, “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.”

The lifesaving episode is only one significant incident that occurs in “Five Mile Lake,” but the big events are not any more important or telling than the small, daily, personal dramas, the slings and arrows we perennially cope with and keep to ourselves, unbetrayed by more than the slightest tic or inconspicuous reaction, that make Bonds’s characters, and their individual situations, so poignant and generally, genuinely, empathetic.

“Five Mile Lake” is disarming because its characters do not harbor secrets or dwell unduly on what gnaws at them as much as they having longings, ambitions, affections, impulses, awkwardness, and embarrassments they so easily and habitually keep to themselves, these strong and potentially hurtful feelings rarely rise to the surface and find expression. They don’t fester or explode but become part of the character’s bloodstream, a perpetual and internal segment of who they are an individuals.

Mann and her cast of Tobias Segal, Kristen Bush, Nathan Darrow, Mahira Kakkar, and Jason Babinsky understand how engrained the collected angst, melancholy, urges, frustrations, and even satisfactions are in their characters’ psyches. That’s what makes it even more amazing they can contain their Thesbian inclinations to understate and eschew flash for the resigned naturalness with which most of us bear our letdowns and disappointments. Mann’s cast is so attuned to the subtle but escalating acuity of Bonds’s play, they submerge outbursts and uniformly convey a seamless and profound flow of people going their business, any anxiety, resentment, or pain neatly filed away and in abeyance.

Natural though they are, the characters are also human. They reveal emotions or responses in slight but telling ways, signaling reactions via tell-tale gestures, facial expressions, and body language we pick up from friends when they are in distress, bristling at something we did or said, or demurring from something they want to tell us.

Bush’s character, Mary, for instance, is midway through the same banal conversation about hockey and figure skating she and Segal’s Jamie have every day as they prepare to open the coffee and pastry shop where they work together from pre-dawn to dusk.

Her paean to ice skating is interrupted by the surprise entrance of Jamie’s brother, Rufus, played by Darrow, who lives in New York and doesn’t return Jamie’s frequent telephone calls, let alone visiting him unexpectedly in the small Pennsylvania town near Scranton, in which all of the characters grew up as friends. As Jamie runs in unrestrained joy to hug his brother and meet his companion, Peta, Mary becomes still, as if frozen at her spot behind the donut counter. She can barely look at the brothers’ reunion or even take a gander at Kakkar’s Peta. Something has shaken her, something no doubt to do with Rufus, and the previously animated Mary is seen staring, as if transfixed, at the clear, orange-handled pot that contains the most recently brewed decaf. Artfully, Bush informs us that Mary has a crush on Rufus, or perhaps some romantic memory from a decade past. This is ironic because Jamie has a crush on Mary, one that is unadmitted but it obvious every time he looks at her.

Mary’s feelings about Rufus are so intense, her nonchalant banter with Jamie evaporates into shy solitude. Mary has known Rufus for her entire life, and she cannot even approach him to greet him, let alone celebrate his surprise arrival at six in the morning. The change is Mary, and her discomfort that looks almost like shock, is so pronounced, it startles you. It is then you realize how artful Bonds has been. During the entirely mundane back-and-forth between Mary and Jamie, we learned a lot about Jamie’s and Mary’s emotional landscapes, all revealed with such deft, invisible, and crafty sleight of hand, you are amazed to realize all you know and admire Bonds’s cunning technique and the way she, Mann, Bush, and Segal wove a seemingly ordinary tale that involved you, and a spell that will hold you through “Five Mile Lake’s” spare but compelling, insightful 100 minutes.

NealBoxBonds’s approach is deceptively clever. Innocuous conversations that seem to be fillers setting up headier dialogue turn out to be packed with information and revelations that come out organically and are so — wait for it — natural, we take it all in in an almost unconscious way that stores bits of talk in our memory in a way usually reserved for foreshadowing plot cues. Details we hear don’t seem important, yet they remain with us so no effort is needed on our part when we need to recall a passage to understand all that is going on in a later sequence. Bush and Segal, talking at the coffee, and later, Segal and Darrow, in a scene that takes place at the lake house the brothers inherited from their grandfather and Jamie’s in fixing up, are so uncontrived and so adept as making you listen, it makes little difference that they seem to engaged in the small talk you hear in almost any play. What they say has undetectable weight. Pauses, silences, and suppressed or withheld comments can also be as pertinent as anything spoken.

Bonds’s skill, abetted by the actors, is to take the routine and the commonplace and give it significance that heightens subsequent scenes and makes them even more stirring or heartrending. Bonds is a master at converting the everyday into texture. We enter McCarter as our usual anticipatory selves, waiting for conflicts and outbursts to emerge, and soon it dawns on us Bonds and company have been treating us to salient tidbits all along, but the eruptions are more of the kind you expect to find at dinner tables, in office corridors, and over beers rather on a theater stage.

Bonds transforms anything that might be regarded as cliché, or smacks of a story you’ve heard, into something absorbing because of the depth she creates and the manner in which matters that have been stoically shoved aside come to the fore when the reunion of the characters, including Mary’s brother, Danny, an emotionally damages Afghan War veteran, ensues.

The place one lives and where one belongs are the themes of “Five Mile Lake,” as are fulfilled and deferred ambitions. Rufus is the one who left Scranton. He fled at age 18 eager to depart and pursue a career as a scholar whose specialty in laments in ancient Greek literature. As “Five Mile Lake” begins, he is years overdue in presenting or defending his doctoral thesis and says he’s come home to finally complete the tome. Darrow does a funny enactment of Achilles pulling his hair out in grief at Patroclus’s death in battle as well as a moving recitation of Andromache mourning the slain Hector. Rufus apparently knows his subject but is stymied in writing it. One senses he may intuit he thesis will not the originality to impress the university dons who will judge it.

Jamie, on the other hand, has contentedly and uncomplainingly stayed in his hometown to take care of his aged and ailing mother and to lovingly restore the lake house that has been in his family for three generations. Jamie is renovating the house room by room and takes pleasure in the carpentry and other work he’s doing while Rufus is more worried about a splinter he gets in a bathroom that is Jamie’s latest construction site and not in the best shape when unexpected company arrived. Jamie likes and enjoys his life. It’s simple and honest and fulfills him. Bonds, blessedly, is not doing a pieces that favors the purity of a small-town birthplace to the worldly decadence of the city. She would never descend to something so trite. Her comparison is more one of pleased acceptance of one’s lot vs. restlessness, a preference over the simple, known, and uncomplicated vs. a desire to distinguish oneself on a bigger stage. Jamie doesn’t mind being anonymous and sees nothing unbecoming about earning a living in a coffee shop, where he works diligently, and coming home the outdoor pleasures of a lake and the woods that surround it. Rufus longs for sophistication, but he wants some notoriety with it. He is more competitive in regards to Peta, who is the assistant editor of a chic magazine and has forward motion written all over her even if, for the present, she is more of a messenger and abused lackey of the publication’s editor than an influence. Rufus would regard Jamie as someone he passed in status and presumed value long ago. Interestingly, it’s Peta who sets most of Bonds’s important revelations in motion and Jamie who proves to be experience and competent in crisis and instinctively useful when things — literal or emotional — needs patching. He can tend to Peta, Mary, and even Danny is ways that would befuddle Rufus. A cat hotel he builds proves to be an act of kindness and unconscious chivalry. It also provides just the sweetness, natural of course, that lets you sigh and releases some of your reactions of all Bonds so excellently and trimly presents.

Mary is the pivotal character of “Five Mile Lake,” She is one who stayed behind, but reluctantly and resentfully. Mary is not humiliated by working in a coffee shop, and she is as meticulous as Jamie about her work, but she doesn’t derives Jamie’s easy satisfaction from her work. She doesn’t have his attitude that any way you earn money honestly is OK and that gratification comes from being fairly independent, paying your bills, buying your lumber and tools for fixing your house, and relaxing by your area’s most notable bit of scenery. Mary wanted more from life. She wanted more of an artist’s existence. Seeing Paris would delight her while it would be afterthought, or an extraneous activity, to Jamie.

To Mary, Rufus is romantic, not only because he is handsome and because he paid just enough attention to her in their childhood that she has lingering feelings for him, but because he leads a life she imagines is cultured and glamorous in New York. Rufus represents the one who escaped all that Mary thinks she’d have gladly abandoned, if care for her parents and the addled Danny, who can’t hold a job and has nightmares from his war experiences, to contend with and support.

Mary likes Jamie, but he’s just another hometown goot who didn’t amount to much as who bores her with hockey stories every morning and even feigns interest in her chat about figure skating to keep conversation going. Rufus’s appearance reminds Mary of the unkept promises she made to herself and the unwanted responsibilities she would say prevented from leaving the Scranton area and striking out on her own.

Peta is the outsider, but she is also the most demonstrative and outspoken of the characters because she is vying to be known by people who know each other completely and don’t need to say everything to each other.

Although one might expect Peta to be a snob and disapproving of Rufus’s hometown and its denizens, she is not.

She has left a large family behind in India, and she is alone with her work and Rufus in New York. Peta envies the easy camaraderie Rufus, Jamie, Danny, and Mary just fall into without thought or provocation. She is dependent on the kindness of strangers, and Rufus, the stranger to whom she’s closest has been stand-offish and furtive of late. When Peta asks what is wrong, he remains vague and cagily says nothing is amiss. He’s just thinking of the impending defense of his thesis. Rufus may claim to be in Scranton to write. Peta knows they left New York to straighten out their relationship in a setting, the lake house Rufus thought would be vacant and useful for a restorative tryst.

Danny’s role is small but important. He shows much imperative it is Mary, or someone, take care of him as he lives with the horrors he faced in two tours in Afghanistan. He also lionizes Rufus. Danny’s reception of the prodigal might be the most effusive of all. He sees in Rufus the return of a friend, perhaps a buddy who can help him get rid of his demons and represents vestiges of his pre-military life.

When one thinks of all Bonds packs into “Five Mile Lake,” it’s incredible to consider it all fits into 100 minutes and goes by so smoothly and engrossingly. Bonds know the people she’s put on stage. Mann is aware of their dynamics and builds theatrical texture into “Five Mile Lake” with the same deft subtlety Bonds employed in writing it.

The cast is terrific, each one showing the many facets in his or her character while refraining from even the slightest bit of flash, staginess, or self-consciousness.

Tobias Segal is so at home in all of “Five Mile Lake’s” setting and so fussless about doing all Bonds requires of Jamie, you find it hard to believe he ever leaves the McCarter stage and think he must live there, constantly as Jamie.

Years after making an indelible impression as Alan Strange in Mum’s production of “Equus,” Segal continues to earn praise as a seasoned actor who blends into his characters thoroughly.

Segal endows Jamie with the guileless goodness that so informs his character. Except for his fearful inability to tell Mary how much he cares for her and wants to be in a relationship with her, Segal’s Jamie always radiates contented happiness. Though as adult as any of the characters, Segal’s Jamie transmits a juvenile quality, not one that recalls Peter Pan, unwilling to grow up, but one that reflects a person who is competent and untroubled. Jamie’s wants are few and except in romance, are met. That keeps him buoyant and youthful. There’s something unjaded and accepting about the way Segal plays Jamie that is attractive and endearing. You would be upset if Jamie was hurt of damaged by anything Rufus, or even Mary says to him. His relationship with Peta shows Jamie’s tenderer and more resourceful side, and it is a treat to watch Segal play those aspects of Jamie’s character, one that, again, seems so obvious and uncomplicated and has so many facets.

Kristen Bush as Mary also contains a wealth of traits in a seeming straightforward character.

Mary is not as cheerful or as satisfied as Jamie. She has come to terms with her life in ways substantive and romantic, but her inability to leave home irks her and eats at her even though she can keep her disappointment and discontent on a far back burner and give it only passing attention as she proceeds through her day-to-day.

Although she has remained around Scranton, Mary has a worldlier nature than Jamie or Danny, who has been in exotic and dangerous settings. Mary is well-read and has interests beyond ice skating, even if that dominates her conversations with Jamie.

Rufus’s return kindles a lot in Mary, and Bush, a master at revealing much through the subtlest of movements or facial changes, lets you see all of the frustration and longing she tamps down on a daily basis.

Bush is excellent at playing the scene in which Mary can barely stay in Rufus’s company. She is also skillful is the one red herring Bonds plants without definitively resolving, a scene in which Mary and Rufus do talk, and Rufus, since Danny took Mary’s car, agrees to drive Mary home. Although you expect this encounter led to intimacy that would affect both Jamie and Peta emotionally, Bonds never tells you whether Rufus and Mary had sex of if we should take Rufus’s story about dropping Mary off and then taking two-hour drive around the area. It is established that Rufus likes to blow off steam by taking long car rides.

Nathan Darrow has both the swagger and look of a man defeated that captures Rufus’s character. He easily conveys Rufus’s destructive narcissism, which keeps him from understanding all that is troubling Peta, that allows to treat Mary casually, and that informs his feeling of superiority towards Jamie. Rufus is the character who has the most trouble with candor, perhaps the only character that does since Mary speaks plainly when she finally expresses her feelings, and Darrow is shrewd about showing Rufus’s caution in relation to the other characters’ openness.

Mahira Kakkar conveys the worldly sophistication and vulnerability of Peta.

Peta’s most dramatic act surprises, but it one more example of how much Bonds’s characters hide while assuming a brave outer stance.

Kakkar is quite affecting when she relates to Jamie the actual cause of her problems with Rufus and the isolation she feels being the only member of her family currently residing in the United States.

Jason Babinsky captures the friendliness and willingness to work of Danny while allow giving signs of the breakdowns he suffers and the violence he can inflict. He also conveys Danny’s hopefulness, which is moving.

Edward Pierce’s set for the coffee shop and Jamie’s house are authentic in detail. Lighting designer Jeff Craiter kept all perpetual night but regulated well to account for time and mood.

“Five Mile Lake” runs through Sunday, May 31, at the Berlind Theatre at McCarter Theatre Center, 91 University Place, in Princeton, N.J. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and selected Sundays, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 3 p.m. Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets range from $92.50 to $25 and can be obtained by calling 609-258-ARTS (609-258-2787) or by visiting www.mccarter.org.

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