Some plays grab you from their first moments and hold you in their grasp till the lights go out. Others sneak up on gradually until at a certain point you realize that you’ve been hooked … and hooked you stay till the final curtain. Rachel Bonds’ Five Mile Lake, the latest World Premiere from South Coast Repertory, falls into the latter category, and quite a small wonder of a play it is.

At first glance, Bonds’ 20/30something characters aren’t exactly folks you’d think would merit a trip to the theater.

????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????? Jamie (Nate Mooney) makes an ordinary living “basically managing” a bakery in a small, lakeside town near Scranton, PA, that he’s called home all his life. He’s got a not-so-subtle crush on coworker Mary (Rebecca Mozo), who’s never left Five Mile Lake either, and couldn’t these days even if she wanted to—which she does—since she’s got her brother Danny (Brian Slaten), back from two tours of duty in Afghanistan, to worry about.

????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????? Showing up unexpectedly for a two-to-three-day visit is Jamie’s brother Rufus (Corey Brill), who would seem to have it a bit better than Jamie as a big(ger)-city grad student with an upper-class English girlfriend Peta (Nicole Shalhoub), but the couple are “going through a thing” and Jamie still has half a dissertation left to write.

Nice people, decent people, attractive people, people whose conversations you might enjoy eavesdropping on, but even a good ways into Five Mile Lake I found myself wondering, are these siblings, friends, and lovers enough to add up to a ninety-minute play?

Trust me when I tell you they are, and please don’t protest if I withhold any further revelations, though truth be told, there are no earthshaking surprises to be had in Five Mile Lake, just little ones, the kind you or I might hold back from a friend out of fear, or embarrassment, or simply because they don’t seem important enough to mention.

Still, by the time Jamie and Mary open the bakery doors for yet another day of work and the lights on the Julianne Argyros Stage fade to black, playwright Bonds, director Daniella Topol, and a sterling cast of Los Angeles-based actors will have you feeling grateful indeed to have spent an hour and a half of your time with them.

??????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????? Bonds is a whiz at writing dialog that sounds so authentic, it echoes real life, but with enough clever turns-of-phrases to make it worth committing to paper. Figure-skating fans will surely have defended the sport (yes it is a sport!) as enthusiastically as Mary does to hockey fan Jamie. Comparing Jamie’s onetime girlfriend Melissa with Mary’s soon-to-be-married ex, Mary declares, “You high-school loved her. I adult-loved Jared.” Later, musing on her unfulfilled college dream of running away to Paris, Mary wonders how things would have turned out had she gone to France to “smoke cigarettes and wander the streets late at night and sleep with painters and be a different person with a life.”

Anyone who’s ever felt disconnected from a sibling, anyone who’s ever felt trapped by family ties, anyone who’s ever found their creative juices dried up, anyone who’s ever longed for someone or some place out of reach, in other words, just about anyone at all will find his or her own life reflected in those of Jamie and Mary and Rufus and Peta and Danny—and drawn into the world playwright Bonds has created for them in Five Mile Lake.

????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????? And what superb actors bring these characters to life under Topol’s perceptive, nuanced direction.

There’s no better, busier, or more versatile actress in town than Mozo, once again perfection as the girl-next-door who dreams of big city doors … and streets and buildings and lives. (Mary’s monolog about an Olympic skater’s long program proves an extraordinarily touching combination of Bonds’ words and Mozo’s acting gifts.)

???????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????? Like Mozo, Brill combines romantic-lead looks with character-actor versatility. Scruffily bearded as Rufus, he scarcely seems the same actor who played gay fiancé Kenny in Caught or Pride And Prejudice’s iconic Mr. Darcy or suburban dad Daniel in Smokefall. Brill doesn’t shy from revealing Rufus’s less sympathetic sides, yet because it is Brill playing him, we like the guy no matter what.

It’s hard to imagine a mensch-ier character … or actor … than all-around good guy Jake as brought ever-so likeably to life by a terrific Mooney. Shalhoub is not only pitch-perfectly, blue-bloodedly British as Peta, she gives the posh Londoner both depth and heart. Slaten gets only one scene as Danny, but he makes the very most of it, revealing in just minutes the loose cannon who’s returned from military service as wounded inside as others might more obviously be from without.

Scenic designer Marion Williams’ set reveals both the bleakness and the beauty of Five Mile Lake, and does amazing things that can only be achieved in a world-class theater like one of South Coast Rep’s. Lap Chi Chu’s exquisite lighting design, sound designer Vincent Olivieri’s moody original music, and costume designer David Kay Mickelsen’s character-perfect outfits are each as good as it gets.

Kudos as always to casting director Joanne DeNaut, CSA, and her superb SoCal cast. Jessica Do is assistant to the director and John Glore is dramaturg. Joshua Marchesi is production manager. Jennifer Ellen Butler is stage manager.

Literary associate Andy Knight conducted the fascinating talk-back which followed the performance reviewed here.

No playwright could ask for a more noteworthy forum for a World Premiere production than South Coast Repertory, and audiences can rest assured that any play that makes the SCR cut will be worth a drive to Costa Mesa. Such is most definitely the case with Five Mile Lake.

South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.

–Steven Stanley
April 23, 2014
Photos: Debora Robinson/SCR

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