World premiere of Deborah Zoe Laufer, Rooted — a commission currently on stage at the Playhouse in the Park – is an alluring work. At first, its three quirky women feel a bit like sitcom characters, and they’re certainly the source of a lot of aloud humor. But before long, a pretty deep message about belief and connection comes through, making this 95-minute show truly satisfying.
Emery Harris (Tarah Flanagan) is an eccentric amateur botanist. She has lived in a cabin perched in the branches of a huge oak tree for more than a decade, accessible only by climbing a rope and entering through a trapdoor that she keeps tightly closed. Despite her lack of scientific training, she conducts experiments to communicate with plants and publishes her research on YouTube. Her pragmatic sister Hazel (Tasha Lawrence) has anger issues. She is a waitress at a restaurant who is bored and unhappy with life in the claustrophobic small town of Millerville. Hazel takes care of Emery, pays the bills and delivers food – but she longs to find a way to escape and maybe take her sister with her.
Turns out, Emery’s research developed a significant following of people online looking for emotional healing — they decided she was something of a new age messiah. Hundreds of them flock to the cow pasture shaded by the Emery tree. One of the seekers, Luanne (Emily Kratter), an eccentric and naive young woman, finds herself in the treehouse, first as an unwanted guest and ultimately as a catalyst for deeper understanding.
Emery, a serious recluse, has named a dozen of her plants – Stuart, Gioncarlo and more – and talks with them as she tries to understand their lives and their dependence on each other. Laufer uses this as a metaphor for the human need for connection, whether rational or irrational. Likewise, Emery’s supporters, camping nearby, sing for her to come and speak to them. She really wants them to leave her alone, but Hazel sees this chaotic cult as a ramp out of Millerville. As Hazel seizes the opportunity, Luanne and Emery find themselves sliding into a meaningful friendship.
Created with a strong burst of magical realism, the charming Se Hyun Oh-designed treehouse set is as much a character as it is a woman. At several points, Emery’s connection to the natural world is portrayed evocatively. The design features an outdoor balcony on the front perimeter of the Playhouse’s Shelterhouse stage, and each of the women occasionally steps out to address or be stunned by Emery’s worshipers, represented by raucous crowd noise (Megumi Katayama is the designer sound and the source of some nice background music). From this position, it’s almost as if the audience is playing the crowd.
Directed by Noah Himmelstein, the three actresses deliver increasingly textured presences, amplified by colorful voices. Flanagan’s Emery attempt is endearing, attention-awaited, walking around her small space using a walker. Her enthusiastic belief in science and her shock at this unexpected and largely thoughtless devotion are both real and touching, and her devotion to her plants makes her particularly lovable. Lawrence’s exasperated and boisterous portrayal of salty, profane Hazel, who loves his sister but desperately wants a change in his life, evolves into an opportunistic schemer with hilarious notions of how to capitalize on Emery’s fame.
Klatter played Luanne in 2018 at the Playhouse in the world premiere of another Laufer play, be here now. In this production, she was a tirelessly optimistic and infuriatingly cheerful colleague to the cynical central character. She retained those fun and innocent qualities, but Klatter’s portrayal makes her more thoughtful and emotionally whole as she understands what Emery is learning from her plants.
The arc that Laufer created for this story takes viewers on an enjoyable journey from humor to understanding. In her playwright’s program note, she writes that she focuses on several themes – “the longing for meaning and belief, the struggle to be truly present, the power of female friendship, and what happens when you slow down and allow there to be calm and connection amidst a chaotic, sometimes scary world. This seems to me to be something we all need in 2022.
Rooted by Deborah Zoe Laufer receives its world premiere at the Rosenthal Shelterhouse Theater at the Playhouse in the Park (962 Mt. Adams Circle, Mount Adams) through March 20. Tickets start at $30. More info at cincyplay.com.
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