Daniel Talbott’s play, Yosemite, is about poverty—being trapped in an unrelentingly cold place. Set designer, Raul Abrego, creates almost a contemporary art installation in physically constructing this metaphor. He transforms the Rattlestick Theater into the snow-covered Sierra Nevada woods, including a wide dirt hole, descending more than five feet beneath the floor. A whistling wind, during the play’s otherwise silent moments, conveys a chilling reality of the world.
High school teenager, Jake (Seth Numrich), digs a grave, with his sister, Ruby (Libby Woodbridge) and brother, Jer (Noah Galvin). They are burying their baby brother, a corpse wrapped inside a black, garbage plastic bag. In the process, the family also unearths their difficulties and humiliations of being poor.
Last spring, to enhance my perspectives in writing theatre reviews, I took a site-specific directing class at Primary Stages, Einhorn School of Performing Arts (ESPA) where Daniel Talbott was the instructor. I interviewed him about his latest play and asked “why poverty?” In Yosemite, Talbott puts a very real face on poverty.
“It’s the most personal play, I’ve ever written, by far”, Talbott said.
Talbott’s parents were young teenagers when he was born. He described them as hippies who rebelled against their established Californian families. Talbott witnessed first-hand the effects that poverty has upon people. When Talbott’s mother became involved in drugs, he moved in with his grandparents.
“The whole play is based on my family. The mom is pieces of my mom. She’s also pieces of my grandmother and myself and pieces of my sister. They are all pieces of people. And for me the play is most personally about not having a dad”, said Talbott, whose father left his mother, while the playwright was still a very young child.
In tapping into his own life experiences, Talbott presents raw, emotionally authentic characters.
Jake fights with his mother, Julie (Kathryn Erbe), both screaming, claiming the other one is guilty. Julie accuses her son of being ungrateful, lazy, lying around and always complaining that he didn’t get what he wanted. Jake accuses his mother of always selfishly putting herself before her kids and leaving them as good as dead. Usually, I vehemently dislike shouting in small theatres unless well reasoned and necessary. However, with this production, I sensed a genuine honesty to a deep-seated rage at a level which I have not witnessed in any theatre in a long time.
The scene quietly shifts to the play’s most poignant moment. Although young, Galvin shows finely tuned acting skills which express a tender vulnerability. He portrays a younger brother, with simplicity, tagging along his siblings. Yet he also captures the sadness of the family’s daunting struggles.
“Maybe Grandma will take us all to Disneyland. Like maybe, we can all go. We can all go together. And live down there, with her together. Maybe we can all. We can all get jobs there. Get jobs together and work at Disneyland. Work there. Like control the rides. Be the ride people. Control the rides together. So people can go on them… Or sell food… or toys or something. Maybe that could work. Maybe”, says Jer.
The play focuses on getting to know the family. The four talented, well-cast actors viscerally mold fury, despair, hope and love for one another, in emotional performances. They are the faces of people, eating government welfare cheese, living in trailer parks, and wearing church donated clothing—and they convincingly could be anyone.
Talbott wrote the play while noticing the extent of the poverty crisis in this country. He feels people have turned away from the problem, with a sense of smugness and snobbery. The crux of the play occurs when Ruby derisively insults a classmate at their school, who is also poor but promiscuous. Jake shouts at Ruby to stop talking as if she’s better than everyone. With obscenities, he yells in frustration, “We’re not better, okay? We’re not better!”
Jake then continues to dig the grave as fast as he can.
“The play for me is about empathy and vulnerability… it’s about people in impossible circumstances trying to dig out of it”, said Talbott.
Yosemite by Daniel Talbott, directed by Pedro Pascal; Rattlestick Theater, 224 Waverly Place, New York, NY, for tickets visit www.rattlestick.org, playing through March 3.
Seth Numrich and Noah Galvin
Libby Woodbridge and Kathryn Erbe