Dry Land is a coming of age tale that digs uncomfortably into both the tenderness and cruelty of North American teenage girlhood. Swim teammates Amy (Veronica Hortiguela) and Ester (Mattie Driscoll) forge a bond over the secret of Amy’s unwanted pregnancy.
The strongest aspect of this work is the deep bond of friendship Amy and Ester develop. This relationship is complex, Amy’s emotional immaturity and self-preserving withdrawal is met by Ester’s openness and empathetic devotion. There is the sense of being embedded deeply within this story as it unfolds, with the story, set (corner of a change room), and theatre (only 5 rows) all so intimate that we don’t even learn Amy’s name until halfway through the production.
While Amy is the protagonist, and her story is the most present (as is her conflict and trauma), it is Ester’s character that is given a fuller backstory. Ester’s hopes and plans to swim in university are made a tangible goal as we are taken out of the pool change room to her tryout (or, to the boys dorm where she will spend the night) as the only scene change throughout the play. We learn of her past struggles which round out her character and provide nuance for her sincere love (friend or otherwise) of Amy. Amy on the other hand remains a mystery. We witness her fear and bravery in the face of an unwanted pregnancy but the harsher edges of her character (her low self-esteem and habit of exploiting herself sexually) provide a thinner history that doesn’t fully flesh out her characters hopes and motivations. Amy dreams of a future for herself in a different place and as a different person, but the dream is vague and hangs in contrast to Ester’s clear trajectory to the next phase of her life. At the end of the play there is a sense of Ester’s character moving on from high school, Amy even expresses grief over this change in dynamic, but Amy’s character does not receive the same sense of moving on, as if she will always be that girl facing down death on the floor of her high school pool change room.
This work is political and timely. Director Jill Harper discusses her interest for staging this work in the director’s notes, it was 2016, the Liberal provincial government had successfully updated the sex ed curriculum (to some pushback from conservative constituents) and while young women in rural Ontario still struggle to access safe abortions, she wondered how relevant this work would be to a progressive Toronto audience. Fast forward two years, in a recent election a regressive conservative party has taken over the provincial government and one of Ford’s first orders of business was to revert the provincial sex-ed curriculum back to an old 1998 standard. Before being elected premier in Spring of 2018, Ford questioned if Ontario teenagers should be allowed to access legal abortions without parental permission. The reason Dry Land’s Amy suffered on that change room floor was due to her inability to discuss her pregnancy with her mother whose permission would be needed in order to access a safe abortion in Amy’s home state of Florida. The messages of this play could not be more prescient.