Lake Untersee is the journey of a boy named Rocky. But before you get visions of a journey up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and beatdowns in the ring, know that this boy is closer to the very strange, enchanted sort. His journey is fascinating, engaging, confusing, and ultimately unsatisfying.
Playwright Joe Waechter opens his play with a prologue in which 15-year-old Rocky reads a map, the wind howling around him, orienting himself to the geography of Antarctica. His desired destination is Lake Untersee, a frozen freshwater lake surrounded by the Gruber Mountains in the continent’s Queen Maud Land region. The majority of the play takes place back in mainland America, where Rocky and his mother, Phyllis, are locked in turmoil, unable to communicate with one another.
Rocky is a product of divorce. He searches for someone named Charlie and believes he must go to Antarctica to find him. At various times I understood Charlie to be a) the memory of Rocky’s first lover, b) an alien trapped beneath Lake Untersee, c) a microbial life form, or d) an imaginary hybrid of each. Phyllis views her son as a disturbed boy; he makes odd hacking, grunting noises instead of words.
At first Phyllis (Adrienne Armstrong), an author with writer’s block, seems unsympathetic. That is until Rocky, played beautifully by Noah Chiet, unleashes that hacking sound. It’s a sound so unnerving that the flow of sympathy shifts. At her wit’s end, Phyllis soon sends him to live with his doctor father, Jason (played with sensitivity by Mark Ludwick), who believes he can do a better job. He soon becomes overwhelmed himself.
The only person able to connect with Rocky is Jason’s hippie painter girlfriend, Gale, a vibrantly upbeat Liz Osborn. Rocky might be weird, but he doesn’t freak her out. Watching how Jason responds to his son changes her feelings toward her boyfriend, sparking conflict in that relationship.
It’s a testament to Waechter that we care about these people, even as other flaws start to undermine the success of Rocky’s story overall. By the middle of the play I wanted the best for everyone in this family. But Lake Untersee ultimately lost me—-a fact I attribute to a disconnect between the scenes of realistic, domestic conflict and the fantastical scenes in Antarctica that bookend the play.
Waechter takes the path less traveled with Rocky. He doesn’t make him the typical misunderstood loner who seems strange, but is actually not so bad once you get to know him. Rocky is odd and his problems feel real. Director Rick Hammerly drives his actors to keep a rapid pace with the dialogue, reinforcing the idea that none of them are listening to one another. The pace’s greatest payoff comes in a moving scene in which Rocky yells at his father, or tries to; his speech, a complex mix of words and barking hacks, is the clearest expression of emotion he has ever managed. The scene offers a tough challenge for any actor and Chiet plays it impressively.
Lake Untersee‘s conflicts escalate in a disturbing and somewhat violent way, at which point the Antarctic bursts forth and alters, well, the emotional landscape of the family. But this turn of events seems at odds with everything that leads up to it. Waechter’s ability to create sympathetic characters now turns on him. Rocky’s point of view seems reasonable, but so does everyone else’s interpretation of his behavior. I don’t know whose interpretation of reality to believe, and the rules that govern Waechter’s world become unclear. Is the reality of Lake Untersee a magical-realistic one, in which unbelievable things are meant to be taken at face value, or are the events of the final scene all occurring in Rocky’s imagination? When it comes to allowing the audience to connect emotionally with a character’s journey, these distinctions are substantive. Maybe Waechter could borrow a page from the book of Tony Kushner, whose Angels in America portrayed harsh reality alongside fever dreams about guardian angels and hallucinatory treks to Antarctica. Kushner created these flights of fancy to inform the audience about a character’s state of mind.
Waechter’s final two scenes left me disoriented. Am I meant to rejoice with Rocky because he has finally broken through the allegorical ice and achieved the connection with his parents he needed? Or do I mourn that Rocky has retreated further into his imagination and has become more alone than ever? With no answers, I departed the theater alienated rather than moved. But I hope the Source Festival won’t be the end of the journey for Lake Untersee.
Photo by C. Stanley Photography courtesy CulturalDC