Though significant events occur in Rachel Bonds’ engrossingly disarming slice of life, “Five Mile Lake,” it’s the small, daily, personal dramas, the slings and arrows we keep to ourselves, that make Bonds’ characters so poignant and generally empathetic.
The characters don’t harbor secrets as much as they have longings, affections, impulses, and embarrassments they keep unexpressed so easily and habitually, they don’t fester or explode but become part of their bloodstream, a segment of who they are.
Emily Mann and her impeccably astute cast at Princeton’s McCarter Theater understand how ingrained the various angsts, itches, melancholy, frustrations, and even satisfactions are in their characters’ psyche. Without a hint of flash or overt histrionics, Mann’s unanimously commendable ensemble conveys the resigned naturalness with which most of us bear our letdowns and disappointments. This troupe is so realistic and sensitive to the subtle, escalating acuity of Bonds’ play, you sense no acting at all, only a seamless and profound flow of people going about their business, anxiety filed away and in abeyance.
Except the characters, being natural, signal the clear tell-tale gestures and expressions we pick up from friends when they are trying to hide distress or demurring from something they want to tell us.
Mary (Kristen Bush) is midway through the same banal chatter about hockey and figure skating that begins every work day at the coffee shop where she toils alongside Jamie (Tobias Segal) when Jamie’s brother, Rufus (Nathan Darrow), enters, an unexpected visitor from New York, one who can go years without answering Jamie’s telephone messages, let alone coming to see him. While Jamie rushes to hug Rufus and greet his accompanying girlfriend, Peta (Mahira Kakkar), Mary freezes at her place behind the counter and turns towards an uninteresting, unanimated decaf decanter, never making eye contact with the smiling, back-slapping brothers. Artfully, Bush has informed us Mary has a crush on Rufus, an irony because Jamie has a crush, unadmitted but obvious every time he looks at her, on Mary.
Mary’s feelings about Rufus are so intense; her nonchalant badinage with Jamie evaporates as she retreats into shy solitude. Because Mary’s change is so pronounced, it startles a bit. Then you realize that in the ordinary back-and-forth with Jamie, you learned a lot about Mary and Jamie’s emotional landscape, all revealed with such deft, undetectable sleight of hand, you admire how Bonds, Mann, Bush, and Segal wove a tale that involved you, and a spell that will hold you through “Five Mile Lake’s” spare but compelling 100 minutes.
Bonds’ approach is deceptively clever. Mundane conversations that seem at first to be fillers preceding headier dialogue are packed with information that comes out so organically and — wait for it — naturally, we take it in without storing it the way we usually do with foreshadowing plot clues. The details we hear don’t seem important, yet they remain with us with no effort needed on our part. Bush and Segal, and later Segal and Darrow, in a scene by Jamie’s lakeside house, one he and Rufus inherited from their grandfather, are so uncontrived and so listenable, it makes little difference that they seem engaged in the kind of small talk that can be, and has been, in almost any play. Also, pauses, silences, and withheld comments can be as telling as anything spoken.
Bonds’ skill, abetted by the actors, is to take the routine and commonplace and give it significance that heightens culminating sequences and makes them even more stirring or heartrending. For a while, we are our usual anticipatory selves waiting for the conflicts and outburst to emerge. Then it dawns on us Bonds and company have been disclosing salient tidbits all along and that the eruptions had been there, only more like they’re revealed at dinner tables and over beers than on theater stages.
Bonds transforms anything that seems like cliche or a story you’ve heard before into something absorbing by the depth she builds and the way stoically shoved aside matters come to fore when the reunion of the characters, including Mary’s brother, Danny (Jason Babinsky), an emotionally damaged Afghan war veteran, ensues.
The place one lives and where one belongs are themes of “Five Mile Lake,” as are our fulfilled and deferred ambitions. Rufus is the one who left the characters’ small Pennsylvania town outside Scranton. He fled at age 18, eager to depart and pursue life in the form of a Ph.D. in English. One of several reasons he gives for returning home is to take a break from his overdue dissertation on laments in ancient Greek literature. Darrow does a great mime of Achilles tearing out his hair when he hears of Patroclus’s death.
Jamie has stayed contentedly behind and uncomplainingly tends to his mother while fixing up his lake house. Mary has also stayed but more resentfully, out of unwanted responsibility. Rufus’s appearance reminds her of the promises she’s made to herself. Danny is Mary’s current excuse. He is unemployed and dependent on her. Peta is the outsider, but she is the most demonstrative character who sets purposeful revelations and admissions in motion.
Thematically and theatrically, Mann’s production holds. “Five Mile Lake” delivers a delayed but palpable wallop that moves and illuminates. Bonds and the director have been shrewd about leaving a point or two ambivalent, even though you have decided what happens in one instance even if Bonds doesn’t tell you.
Tobias Segal is particularly wonderful as Jamie, happy except for his inability to tell Mary all he feels for her. Segal’s guileless goodness abound. You hurt with him when he is hurt, and though Jamie does not conquer worlds, he proves to be a competent and sweet guy to have around in a pinch.
Bush captures the reconciled and rebellious sides of Mary, Darrow the damaging narcissism of Rufus, Kakkar the worldly vulnerability and reliability of Peta, and Babinsky the hopefulness and gregariousness of Danny, who is thrilled to see Rufus.
Edward Pierce’s set for the coffee shop and Jamie’s house are authentic in detail. Lighting designer Jeff Craiter kept all perpetual night but regulated well to account for time and mood.
Five Mile Lake, McCarter Theater Center, 91 University Place, in Princeton. Through May 31. Tuesday through Thursday (as well as Sundays, May 17 and 24) at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday, 8 p.m., Saturday at 3 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. $25 to $92.50. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.