By Jan Sjostrom
Something magical is happening at Theatre Lab, the new-play incubator based at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton.
Deborah Zoe Laufer’s play Rooted is a not-to-be missed experience. The show is both a love letter to female friendship and an incisive examination of celebrity worship, the internet’s insidious power and the lengths to which people will go to escape empty lives.
The alchemy builds on Laufer’s unfussy yet poetic language, rich characters and quirky wit. Through them, she spins a story laced with surprising twists and sprinkled with magical realism.
Heartfelt performances by Elizabeth Dimon, Laura Turnbull and Gretchen Porro and the playwright’s sure-footed direction complete the spell.
Rooted is the second play in a planned trilogy set in a fictional version of the small town where Laufer grew up.
In this installment Emery and Hazel Harris, sisters of certain age, reach a turning point in their thus-far uneventful lives.
The tale is set in a treehouse, a kid’s dream hideout conjured by scenic designer Michael McClain. That’s where Emery, played with naivete and other-worldly wisdom by Dimon, has been holed up for the past 12 years.
A woman who’s more at home with plants than people, Emery only encounters the outside world when Hazel drops by, bearing the supplies that keep Emery alive. To her, the thousands of followers her YouTube videos of plant experiments have attracted are merely scores she’s racking up.
She’s most alive in the moments when she slips into another dimension, signaled by soft blue light and soothing electronic music, to commune with the natural world.
While Emery is happily “rooted” Hazel yearns to yank herself out of her dead-end waitress job and the suffocating soil of her hometown.
Neither expects Emery’s YouTube followers to change the course of their lives.
To the sisters’ astonishment they flock to her tree, having twisted her message of proper stewardship of plants and the planet into a promise of healing for themselves.
Though invisible to the audience, the growing crowd’s presence is sensed through Matt Corey’s and Gregory Ram’s powerful sound design.
When the fans begin raining money on their idol, Hazel seizes the opportunity to bankroll her escape. In a fierce yet sympathetic portrayal by Turnbull, Hazel steamrolls over her sister’s protests, using the internet to teach herself how to turn Emery’s fan base into a full-blown cult.
This continues until Emery’s disciples, grown restive by her failure to show herself, trample Luanne and Hazel hauls the young woman to safety in the tree house.
Porro’s subtle skill allows Luanne to blossom from awestruck seeker to the kindred spirit Emery never knew she needed. Let’s just say that Luanne alters the balance of power between the sisters so as not to require a spoiler alert.
What can be said without reservation is that Rooted is a well-crafted and beautifully executed play that uplifts but doesn’t shy away from observing the weeds that can infest even the most well-guarded refuge.
Rooted runs through Feb. 18 at Theatre Lab in Florida Atlantic University’s Parliament Hall at 777 Glades Road in Boca Raton. For tickets, call (561) 297-6124 or visit fau.edu/artsandletters/theatrelab/productions/. Running time is 90 minutes without intermission. Tickets range from $35 to $45.