With so many emerging playwrights clamoring to be heard, which voices deserve your attention? Lucy Thurber makes the list with a nice body of work about smart, ambitious young women who pride themselves on having escaped their rural hometowns, only to become entangled in the emotional bonds that keep them tied to their roots. Experimenting with an impressionistic style in “Bottom of the World,” Thurber takes her story from a manuscript written by a dead woman and left behind for her sister to read. Neither sister benefits from this awkward narrative device, but there’s real music in their melodic voices.
The Atlantic Theater Company has supplied helmer Caitriona McLaughlin with a hard-working cast and a soulful two-man bluegrass band — but rather too much in the way of production values.
Abigail (Crystal A. Dickinson) and her dead sister, Kate (Jessica Love), are meant to be communicating in some metaphysical netherworld beyond the grave. (The script has Kate sitting in the limbs of a giant tree.) But the delicacy of the fantasy is smothered by Walt Spangler’s set, a sprawling installation of raw wood two-by-fours that closes off the downstage playing area and casts deep shadows on anything going on upstage.
The more realistic city apartment where Abigail has gone to pack up Kate’s belongings is no less cramped, forcing Abigail and her best friend Susan (Aubrey Dollar) to navigate around a mini-mountain of cardboard boxes. The claustrophobic setting becomes even more awkward when Abigail and some hot chick she picks up at a club have to grope their way to the bed.
To be fair, the designer is only taking his visual cues from the overstuffed text, which juxtaposes vignettes from Abigail’s pedestrian life with the more novelistic life-stories that Kate chronicles in her manuscript.
Maybe because she’s dead and all, Kate has the best lines and the more interesting stories to tell. “The boys never get out,” she says, introducing a plot line about two friends (“rough and tumble boys with dirty pockets”) from her hometown who fell in love with local girls and never left town.
“They are so damn pretty but they never get out,” Kate says, trying to explain why these farmer boys she grew up with still haunt her.
It’s not at all clear why Abigail is forced to deal with such extraneous matters as the tragicomic breakup of Susan’s parents’ marriage, instead of being drawn into Kate’s evocative stories. For that matter, it’s not even clear what these rural tales about people that Abigail seems not to know or care about have to do with reaffirming the sisterly bond that snapped when Kate died.
“I want to live,” Abigail says, finally confessing to the survivor guilt that makes her feel as if she has betrayed Kate just by being alive.
But her guilt seems misplaced, since these near-strangers seem not to have known one another very well in the first place.