In Seattle’s West of Lenin theatre stands the intimate set of local playwright Sonya Schneider’s latest play, Big Rock. A large rock dominates the stage, with several scatterings of wood, stumps, rocks, and wild grasses. The far end of the stage features a few stairs leading up to a wooden door. The set feels close, the actors almost within reaching distance; intimacies reproduced, perhaps, by the placement of the stage (level with the audience) and the small seating area (only 56 chairs).
The elements of the set, which function around the titular rock, represent an isolated island in the San Juans, a place where Schneider often visits and which served as her first spark of inspiration to write Big Rock.
“I think that this play really started while I was there,” said Schneider. “The characters came out of my being reflective and connected to nature, but also out of the unsettling thoughts that arise when I get to leave my busy life and be quiet. Being away from everything isn’t always pleasant: it can be a time when I feel a restless energy, discover some disappointments, and wrestle with my life.”
That reflective wrestling is exactly what Big Rock’s three characters do, each in his own rich and complex way. Harris Sands (Todd Jefferson Moore), a well-known poet who has taken refuge on the island to find a quiet place to write, is joined by his somewhat-estranged daughter Signe (Meg McLynn), an up-and-coming visual artist in New York. Their strained dynamic is balanced and challenged by the presence of island native Hamish (Evan Whitfield), who is simple, unassuming, and generous, but who pines after Harris’s writing advice while also trying to befriend the rather cold and inaccessible Signe.
The profoundly human dynamic created by this trio is heartbreakingly messy and achingly authentic. With cutting expertise, the play exposes each character to be in some way misunderstood and broken while also maintaining a resiliency that pulls them through the obstacles they face.
The raw emotion expressed on the stage serves to remind every audience member that their own inner strength can pull them through the most desperate situations.
“I want everyone, regardless of if they are an artist or not, to be reminded that it is okay to fail,” said Schneider. “I want people to walk away knowing that, as long as we can hold on to that thing inside of us that wants to express itself, we can pick ourselves up from any failure and continue, and possibly continue even brighter.”
The tight clarity of the script, the talented and synergistic cast, and the provocative design contributes to a play that eschews triteness at every turn. Big Rock hits the sweet spot—fresh, creative, authentic, and captivating, this play has no room for anything toeing at cliché. In only 90 minutes, the characters break the hearts of each other and the audience and manage by the final line to find a sense of stability and wholeness for themselves, each other, and the 56 observers.
Schneider commented that her excitement for an audience to see her work is always a complicated mixture of nervousness and anticipation.
“Once an audience comes into the room,” she said, “the play still feels like mine in a way, but now it’s taken flight. It’s like I can see the bird in the sky, and maybe I raised that bird, but now it’s on its own. Part of writing this play has been an exercise in surmounting my anxieties about how my work will be received, because I really want to try to enjoy the experience of having other people come and watch the bird fly, too.”
I, for one, found that flight to be a stunning one, and cannot overstate how profoundly touching I found this show to be. If you want to laugh, cry, and laugh again—go see it, go see it, go see it.
Big Rock plays at West of Lenin every Thursday through Sunday until March 31. Click here to purchase tickets.