nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
January 25, 2012
Daniel Talbott's Yosemite, which is premiering at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, is a sad, lyrical play about three lost children: how they got that way, and, perhaps, how we got that way as well.
The first thing we see once we've settled in our seats, before the play begins, is Raul Abrego's astonishing set, depicting the interior of a forest in the American Northwest on a winter's day. Huge trees frame the picture in our vision, while another, fallen tree spans the width of the space, its giant stump nearby. All are dusted with snow. It's a place that's at once beautiful and bleak, welcoming but oh so cold.
When the lights go up and the play commences, we see something else on stage: a large hole—a grave, surely—is being dug. Piles of rich black dirt surround it.
We see, too, Jake, Ruby, and Jer, three children fighting to keep out the cold in inadequate winter gear. Ruby forgot to put on her gloves, so Jake pulls his off and gives them to her. They are siblings, and they are here on a grim task: the grave that Jake is digging is for their infant baby brother Nathan, whom Ruby is holding, swaddled, as it were, in a green garbage bag.
Yosemite is mostly about how these three kids have survived to this point against dreadful odds. Their father is dead; their mother, Julie—who we will meet in short order—is a damaged, broken woman. Was she/is she a drug addict, perhaps? That's where my mind went when I heard about her and then met her. Whatever the details of her particular story, she has not managed to make a life for herself or for her children since their father died, and her new husband, who has installed the family in a trailer park near this forest, doesn't seem to have helped much.
The kids speak of a grandmother who might take them away, to Disneyland, to Knott's Berry Farm, somewhere. Hope of rescue is what keeps them going. In the short term, Jake has a job at a restaurant and maybe this can help move them toward the family security they sorely lack.
Talbott's dialogue is lean and spare and poetic, full of longing and emotion and memory; not attempting re-creation of an actual conversation so much as opening windows into the hearts and souls of his characters. The play feels very personal and deeply felt, but seeing it the same week as the President's State of the Union message prompted thoughts that a larger story may be being told here: the family has been abandoned by those who should be nurturing and responsible, and that's a pretty apt metaphor for the way things seem to be going politically in America in 2012.
Pedro Pascal's realization of the play, on that remarkable set, is fine if perhaps a bit slower than might be necessary. Seth Numrich anchors the show with another brilliant performance (he starred in Talbott's last show at Rattlestick, Slipping, before heading up the company of War Horse at Lincoln Center Theater). His Jake is struggling to find the man he can be inside the boy he still is, fighting the rage he feels and desperately seeking love and security. Numrich reveals him to us gradually, all the while digging, digging, digging, in a performance of relentless energy and power.
Kathryn Erbe plays the mother, a woman who is really hard to care for. Libby Woodbridge unfortunately registers as too old as Ruby, a girl I took to be a very young teenager. Noah Galvin, though, is completely convincing as the youngest child, Jer, and he has a moment in the center of the play that takes the breath away. (You'll have to see the play to discover what happens.)
Yosemite is another rich, melancholy, aching work from the pen of Daniel Talbott, whose talent just seems to keep on growing. (Note that I'm not entirely objective about Daniel's work, having published three of his plays in book and digital form.) I think anyone seeing this play will have trouble not being moved by it, and by Numrich's extraordinarily affecting performance.