NEW YORK — Some family secrets are too big to bury.
Playwright Daniel Talbott has written a searing drama of a family trapped in a downward spiral, both emotionally and financially, in his dark new play "Yosemite," which opened Thursday night off-Broadway in a compelling production at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater.
In this disturbing work, an excellent cast guided by director Pedro Pascal skillfully creates an increasingly tense atmosphere, as three unhappy teenage siblings reluctantly dig a hole in the snowy woods near their trailer park residence.
Seth Numrich gives a devastating performance as the oldest boy, Jake. Numrich gradually ratchets up Jake's anger and desperation while laboriously digging a hole onstage, tossing dirt and heaving rocks for much of the 90-minute play. Libby Woodbridge is sweetly heartbreaking as his slightly younger sister, Ruby.
With delicate wistfulness, Woodbridge enacts an imaginative teenage girl under great stress. Ruby is constantly near tears but gamely trying to keep an air of normalcy going, while desperately cradling the small bundle their mother has demanded they bury. She chatters about everyday issues like homework, food and neighbors, in between discussions about their descent into poverty and the dreadful event that necessitated their current difficult task.
Noah Galvin wears a shell-shocked air as youngest brother, Jer, who pipes up incongruously a few times, as kids do, about getting Grandma to take them to Disneyland. Jake has other ideas about how to escape their unhappy living situation, which was set in motion by the death of their father and subsequent remarriage of their mother. It's clear they have a strong shared bond, despite the quarreling that erupts between Jake and Ruby.
By the time hollow-eyed, rambling Mom (Kathryn Erbe) shows up to see how it's going, it's clear why none of them will even look at her at first. Erbe gives a deeply affecting performance as their angry, guilty, loving but despairing mother. Numrich and Erbe have a potent scene where they overlap screaming repeatedly at one another, which is as emotionally draining to watch as it must be to enact.
It's clear that the kids have a terrible foreboding about just why their mother has come to reminisce with them, as she tries to plant happy memories in their minds. The actors have created such believable characters that the audience is numbed by the idea of more sorrow ahead for them.
The crackling dialogue and suspenseful silences are well-paced by Pascal. Raul Abrego's impressive onstage forest, complete with sunken hole full of big rocks and dirt, provides an artful, natural background to Talbott's breathtaking, unnatural human tragedy.