Lake Untersee, produced by the Workhaus Collective at Illusion Theater

Michael Thurston as Rocky in Lake Untersee. Photo: Heidi Bohnenkamp.

Michael Thurston as Rocky in Lake Untersee. Photo: Heidi Bohnenkamp.

Workhaus Collective begins its season with “Lake Untersee,” a new play by Joe Waechter. Playwrights’ Center artistic director Jeremy Cohen must feel strongly about the talents of this young playwright and served as director. He’s on the right track; the writing is smart, the story judiciously paced, and the acting is superb.

The story concerns Rocky, a 15-year-old (or 16, depending on if you believe his mom or his dad) who appears to have some psychological issues. He acts out by growling when he cannot give voice to his turmoil and frustration.

The marketing says that he “embarks on an adventure of a lifetime to Antactica’s Lake Untersee, where the love of his life is trapped beneath layers and layers of ancient ice.” But that’s not what this play is about. In fact, the whole Antarctica/lover-frozen-in-ice thing is a pesky distraction from the absorbing family drama that is the actual story.

The intended metaphor is clear enough by the end of the play, but I thought it drew a little too much attention to itself as a device, and pulls us emotionally away from what’s really interesting: how will this family resolve their problems? The device was, I think, a means to an end, and once Waechter had his “end,” he just didn’t need it any more.

What I really cared about was this earnest, bright and gentle teenager, who was trying so sincerely to love and to feel loved. Although his divorced parents declare their love for him, and fuss over him, and do “what’s best for him,” they are so preoccupied with themselves that neither one of them can shut up long enough, much less let go of their own needs long enough – to hear what he is trying to say, but can’t.

Michael Thurston, a student at the St. Paul Conservatory for the Performing Artists, was wondrously appealing in this role, beautifully tipping back and forth between acceptable behavior and his growling acting out. Thurston never pushes too far or lets it become an act, but coaxes us inside the character’s emotional minefield. It just made perfect sense.

The story unfolding between his parents was plenty interesting, too, written with a skillful eye and played with a deliciously satirical mix of uptightness and abandon by Jennifer Blagen as Rocky’s mother, Phyllis, and Michael Booth as his dad, Jason. Both get their confessional moments, which are tasty frosting after all the substantial “cake” we’ve been served. Blagen and Booth are so different as actors, but made for a terrific—and even—pairing in this quirky standoff.

There’s a girlfriend, too, who has her own set of issues, playing itself out on a divergent path, but joining up with the others in a satisfying way at the end. Adelin Phelps as “Gale,” a painter, was a dandy foil for the famous-writer mom and psychologist dad, holding her own in the craziness, and providing a safety valve for Rocky’s explosive emotional state. Also completely believable.

Don’t avoid this play because of the “in love with another life form that’s buried under layers of ice” thing. See it because, at its heart, it’s a story about real people, a family that loves each other and messes up big time. And it’s about a coming of age that’s painful, but it’s pain that can be transcended.

It runs through Sept. 27 at the Illusion Theatre in downtown Minneapolis.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *