Conflict is a prime ingredient of drama—and has been since the ancient Greeks invented the form over 2500 years ago—so you'd better spell it with a capital C when talking about Ben Clawson's latest play, High Water Mark, now receiving its world premiere production at Luna Stage in West Orange.
Last year Clawson wrote about two very powerful male scientists—Thomas A. Edison and Nikola Tesla—locked in a power struggle over the method to deliver electricity. For this play, he turns his attention to a power struggle between two ordinary middle-aged women and hits all the notes about female friendship just right. Quite a feat for such a young—male—playwright to pull off!
The two women, Janet and Lily, would appear to be polar opposites. Janet is a rather mousy, timid divorced history teacher while Lily is the garrulous, loud ("volume control has never been my forte," she says) wife of a very rich man. Janet lives in a tiny, rundown apartment by herself (her kids are with her ex-husband Kyle); Lily, resides in a McMansion where she nevertheless feels trapped, like "Rapunzel in a tower." (L-R: Andrea Maulella and Sabrina Profitt; Photos by Steve Lawler)
The two have seen each other sporadically, ever since Lily's husband Jason hit it big and Janet had kids, but their relationship is "rekindled" when, late one night, Lily bangs on Janet's door seeking solace. As the two women drink copious amounts of wine and then vodka, they reminisce, blame gets assigned all around, secrets are revealed ("In vino veritas," Janet observes), the truth is exposed and betrayal raises its very ugly head.
Luna Stage's new artistic director Cheryl Katz directs this battle of two women with a steady hand, so that the tension (and dramatic momentum) never flags. Andrea Maulella as Janet and Sabrina Profitt as Lily deliver the well-written dialogue so naturally that I was convinced they were having a real conversation. Too, the two actors' demeanor beautifully conveys the women's inner lives. And best of all, as written and portrayed, the two characters are dynamic rather than static; they change as the action progresses, growing and shrinking before our very eyes, keeping us captivated as to what is unfolding onstage.
Dressed for clubbing in leather pants, glittery sandals and a jeweled top, Profitt delivers Lily's profanity-ridden dialogue with confidence and verve. She's drunk, convincingly so, and totally unaware of the hurt inflicted by her loudly spoken words. Maulella's Janet wipes her nose often and appears shrunken and almost invisible in the ratty bathrobe she has donned to answer the door (kudos to Deborah Caney for costumes). As Lily tosses around insults, Maulella flinches, and we feel for this put-upon friend. The two women's difference is summed up when Lily avers, "I do what I want to do; Janet does what she's supposed to do," but by the final scene, things have changed, making the dénouement all the more delicious.
Charles Murdock Lucas has created a set that captures Janet's reduced, cramped circumstances to a tee; Jorge Arroyo's lighting and Jay Spriggs' sound further the effect.
For over 20 years, Luna Stage has presented works by emerging playwrights, and audiences have come to expect excellence. High Water Mark, the title of this, play says it all. A note in the program says that a high water mark is "the highest point, as of achievement; the apex," a definition that applies to Luna Stage productions, hands down. As for the play, the high water mark for Janet and Lily could be the six days they spent together in New Orleans long ago, the only high point of a friendship that had, as one of them says, "no good times in the past." It is hard for Ben Clawson to top his previous play, The Dangers of Electric Lighting, but he has, albeit on a smaller, yet just as earth-shattering, scale.
High Water Mark will be performed at Luna Stage, 555 Valley Road, West Orange, weekends through November 10. There will be a talkback with the actors and production staff on October 24, immediately following the performance. For information and tickets, call the box office at 973.395.5551 or visit www.lunastage.org.