To appreciate the power of Ruby Rae Spiegel’s “Dry Land” as mounted by Forum Theatre, consider two antithetical commands uttered, at different points, by a single character. Desperate to terminate an unwanted pregnancy, a 17-year-old named Amy has turned for help to Ester, a fellow member of the high school swim team. In one scene, Amy humiliates and bullies her new sidekick, backing her up against a set of lockers and barking “Look at me!” as Ester avoids her eye.
In another scene, set not long afterward, Amy has a far different request. “Don’t look at me!” she says, curled up sobbing on the locker-room floor, as a solicitous Ester hovers nearby.
The contrast between the two moments points to the wealth of intricately tangled emotion — shame, frustration, aggressiveness, gratitude and more — that Spiegel covers in this heartbreaking and often funny play, artfully directed by Amber Paige McGinnis. Nor is “Dry Land” just a powder keg of feeling: Though it barely strays from its main locker-room setting, the play offers vivid glimpses of the society that has left Amy and Ester feeling uncertain, vulnerable, rushed and judged, but neither hopeless nor helpless.
Forum has paired “Dry Land” with Monica Byrne’s “What Every Girl Should Know,” another play about young women coming to terms with sexuality and friendship. Mounted by all-female creative teams, the shows — which Forum has nicknamed the “Nasty Women Rep” — run in repertory through April 15.
The double bill feels timely in the aftermath of the 2016 election and January’s Women’s March, as political developments threaten Planned Parenthood and as a new Supreme Court nomination throws Americans’ polarized views of abortion into relief. But “Dry Land,” at least, never feels like an issue play, because its Gatorade-quaffing protagonists seem so real and specific.
Actress Emily Whitworth lays bare Amy’s contradictory reaches of assertiveness, cruelty, solipsism and insecurity. Yakima Rich displays deep intensity as the more bottled-up Ester. Christian Montgomery hits just the right notes as Ester’s self-deprecating acquaintance Victor, and Thais Menendez is amusingly frivolous as Amy’s best friend, Reba.
Spiegel has written into “Dry Land” what is surely the most affecting mopping scene in the whole of dramatic literature. The sequence plays out poignantly in this production, with Matty Griffiths depicting the janitor.
“What Every Girl Should Know” is not as rich as “Dry Land,” but it’s arresting and appealingly idiosyncratic. Set in 1914 and directed by Jenna Duncan, the play chronicles the friendship of four girls at a reformatory school in New York. Joan (Lida Maria Benson), Anne (Menendez), Lucy (Rich) and Theresa (Whitworth) have rich fantasy lives; they are also fascinated by the idea of Margaret Sanger, the crusader for women’s right to birth control. (Sanger founded what became Planned Parenthood.) The fact that Sanger’s work is at odds with the law only increases her appeal in the eyes of the four friends, who have good reason to be rebellious.
As Spiegel does in “Dry Land,” Byrne captures her characters’ occasional childishness, as well as their precocious maturity. Both sophistication and innocence seem to figure in the ecstatic dances that Joan, Anne, Lucy and Theresa break into periodically. Part Dionysian trance, part “Lord of the Flies”-style release, the dances — choreographed by Paige Hernandez, to wonderfully unnerving music — are among the eerie phenomena apparently triggered by the characters’ veneration of Sanger.
The ending of “What Every Girl Should Know” is less surprising than it could be, and the dialogue often sounds contemporary rather than early-20th-century. But the play contains moments of startling poetry.
And the production is gripping enough to elicit an ache of solicitude. One admires the strength and courage of all the young characters in the “Nasty Women Rep” — but one also yearns to take them home and protect them.
Dry Land by Ruby Rae Spiegel and What Every Girl Should Know by Monica Byrne. Set design for both shows, Paige Hathaway; lighting, Sarah Tundermann; costumes, Heather Lockard; sound, Sarah O’Halloran; properties, Mollie Singer. Each play is 90 minutes. Tickets: $33-$38. Through April 15 at the Silver Spring Black Box Theater, 8641 Colesville Rd., Silver Spring. Call (301) 588-8279 or visit forum-theatre.org.