Botany and belief systems, both real and dubious, are at the heart of Deborah Zoe Laufer’s Rooted, her latest exploration of life’s contradictions, served up with a strong measure of whimsy.
Delivering her ultimately thoughtful outlook is a trio of eccentric souls whose search for meaning has them up a tree, quite literally.
Consider Emery Harris, an unschooled self-styled scientist, who has not left her well-appointed treehouse in upstate New York for more than a decade. Convinced that plants can understand, communicate and remember, she has been conducting experiments with her green leafy friends and posting the startling results on YouTube.
That sounds harmless enough, but when her research goes viral, drawing thousands of responses, Emery’s online followers start arriving at the open field where her tree — dubbed Mabel — stands. There they declare Emery to be the new-age messiah they have been waiting for, the source of emotional healing they collectively crave.
Emery finds the chanting crowd to be a nuisance. But her older sister, Hazel, long stuck in a dead-end job waiting tables at the local diner, sees the mob as her source of monetary salvation, a way to afford a way out of their stifling small town. Show me a true believer, Hazel reasons, and I’ll show you a sheep ready to be fleeced.
Completing the play’s trio of characters is Luanne, an open-hearted, optimistic holdover from one of Laufer’s earlier works, Be Here Now. Pummeled by the crowd, she manages to climb her way into the treehouse, and is accepted by the usually people-averse Emery. For her part, Luanne comes to accept Emery’s fascination with plants and concern for the planet, as she becomes an empathy magnet for the audience.
Playwright Laufer presents a challenge for a director in her script’s shifting tone and implausibility, but she has a kindred spirit at FAU Theatre Lab, in a production which she herself directs with unblinking assurance.
If, as it is said, the key decision for a director is casting, Laufer paved the way for the production’s success by hiring the trio of actresses from Be Here Now six seasons ago.
As introverted Emery, Elizabeth Dimon finds plenty of dimensions in her character’s meekness, clinging to her walker like a lifeline, hiding out from her adoring followers below. In contrast to her timidity is Laura Turnbull’s Hazel, volcanic in her anger at the world, yet amusingly so. Completing the threesome is Gretchen Porro as chipper Luanne, a dim bulb though awfully sincere. While Rooted’s forward motion isn’t always evident, the performers are never less than compelling.
Michael McClain’s treehouse set is a visual treat, brimming with intricate details, from the central tree trunk to the working kitchen sink to the trap door to the outside world below. And resident costumer Dawn C. Shamburger outfits the cast with a sly wink, particularly Turnbull’s dainty waitress uniform.
Be Here Now and Rooted are the first two installments of a projected trilogy. They make us eager to see the third shoe drop.
ROOTED, Florida Atlantic University Theatre Lab, Parliament Hall, FAU Campus, 777 Glades Road, Boca Raton. Through to Sun., Feb. 18. $35-$45. 561-297-6124.