Rachel Bond’s new play Five Mile Lake is subtle and sensitive in its attention to characters whose greatest struggles are their own desires. It is a play that willfully and admirably eschews reliance on some great dramatic action or grand conflict, turning its attention instead to the tension that simmers perpetually just below the surface of everyday lives. Bond’s characters exist in a state of constantly making do with their day-to-day, aware that they are not very content, but striving nonetheless to keep their frustrations and tensions only at a simmer. Of course not much force is required to raise a simmer to a rolling boil.
Set somewhere in the middle of Pennsylvania—in that rural terrain only a few hours’ drive from Philadelphia and New York—on the banks of its eponymously expansive lake, the play opens as Jamie (Tobias Segal) and Mary (Kristen Bush) go about their mundane daily routine of opening the local coffee shop. Making chit chat as they arrange the day’s muffins, set the coffee pot, and clean the counter, the two immediately reveal an angst that will run throughout the play: they are at once set in their routine and unsettled by its routineness. As the playwright will do throughout, Bond raises the expected questions only to leave them unfulfilled. Clear undercurrents of sexual tension, professional unrest, and concern about their private lives run throughout the scene, but the dialogue and action never move much past quotidian workplace chatter.
This particular workday is interrupted when Jamie’s brother Rufus (Nathan Darrow) shows up unexpectedly from New York with his girlfriend, Peta (Mahira Kakkar). He and Jamie have not been close or in contact since Rufus left for graduate school in the big city. His yearning was always to flee the backwater town of the play’s setting, while Jamie has embraced it as his home.
Over the course of the play, the reasons that this brotherly relationship has remained distant will become clear, as various conflicts swell between the brothers, intersecting with the play’s two women, as well as Danny (Jason Babinsky, who does a wonderful job of making a small role powerful), Mary’s veteran brother who struggles to find a job after returning from his second tour in Afghanistan. But this is a play much less about interpersonal conflict than it is fascinated by personal, existential tension. The problems each character has with the others are mostly manifestations of problems with the self. Bond’s insightful writing and her ensemble’s delicate portrayals of her characters make Five Mile Lake a nuanced (and regularly funny) examination of lives struggling against the constant pressure of one’s own expectations and desires.