9/2/2023 ROOTED Horizon Theatre
FLORA AND FAWNA
Emery lives in a treehouse. It’s not a typical backyard “Girlz Keep Out” kid hangout or even an elaborate “Swiss Family Robinson” construction. It is large, roomy, and comfortable, as if a Hobbit Hole has been lifted to the treetops. It has a rain barrel, and it is filled to overflowing with greenery, the flora of Emery’s obsessions.
Emery needs a walker to move around her domain. And she never finished grade school, let alone high school, but she is voraciously curious and highly intelligent. But she is so agoraphobic and anthropophobic that she hasn’t left her treetop in, well, perhaps ever. She is cared for by her cynical and grouchy elder sister, Hazel.
Emery has a large You Tube following. She makes little videos of her experiments with plant psychology and learning. Springing from the controversial work of Australian biologist Monica Gagliano (Google her – it’s worth the trip down the rabbit hole), she is confirming that plants can learn, or at least be trained.
Emery is the object of adoration by a cult, her “fawna” as it were, who have gathered in the pasture outside her home, demanding to be “healed” and “made whole.”
Such is the set-up for Deborah Zoe Laufer’s Rooted, a compelling little gem of a play that tackles the disparate tendrils of cult behavior, science vs faith, internet obsessiveness and bubble-thinking, economic deserts, global warming, plant psychology, and sibling connections, creating, in effect, an affecting floral graft that is laugh-out-loud funny and emotionally gut-punchy.
Ms. Laufer is a favorite playwright at Horizon (and Aurora) and this is my fourth exposure to her mind and wit and world. I loved End Days (2009 at Horizon) and Sirens (2011 at Aurora) – not so much Be Here Now (2018 at Aurora) which pushed almost all my cranky old skeptic red flag buttons – but this one may just be my favorite. Like End Days, it is about the mystery of how faith takes root, about the love and bonds of family, and about an “outsider” who upsets the apple cart.
And, also like End Days, Rooted strives to be non-judgmental about people of “outlying” faiths – yes, the mob of green-clad Emery-worshipers gathered in the pasture are a bit ridiculous and a definite nuisance. But they are made to be understandable, even worthy of empathy. The local small town is one of those one-horse places where the horse has either fled or died, where hopelessness is the main export, where any glimmer of salvation is embraced and worshipped. It is a place where a contract from a Fracking company can set up a family for life, if it weren’t for those damn global warming lies uprooting the plan.
In this case, the outsider is Luanne, a follower who is injured in an impromptu stampede, brought up to the tree house by Hazel for First Aid. She and Emery bond over …. It doesn’t really matter. They just bond! But Luanne isn’t a great believer in science or experimentation, though it is revealed that she has done her own experiments and discovered some plant “behaviors” that surprise even Emery. Just don’t call it science – It’s gardening!
A subtext underlying all (like ground mold oozing up to vulnerable roots) is the real object of worship in the world – the internet. If it’s online, it’s true! After all, all the people who believe the same thing agree that it’s true. It’s what drives the cult, and, sadly, what drives us all today. We are loathe to read anything that challenges our beliefs and relish any rabbit hole that supports whatever half-backed theory drives our diets, our politics, our paradigms, our lives.
But it is forcefully counteracted by another subtext, the salvatory influence of human connection, even between an anthropophobe and a stranger who wants nothing more than to bask in the presence, fawn in the presence, or at least get a selfie with the presence. The bond between Emery and Hazel drives the play even as it tears them apart – Emery cannot abide Hazel’s penchant for cynically exploiting the cult for “tithes.”
And, of course, there is that theoretical emotional bond between human and plant, a bond the leaves us with a breathtakingly powerful final image (not to mention a close encounter between Emery and her host tree that dominates one of the many transition “dream sequences”).
Maria Rodriguez-Sager OWNS this production as Emery. She simply oozes empathy and intelligence and joy. Everything about her “space” seems to fill her with delight, as exemplified by those transitional dream sequences, as exemplified by her quick connection to Luanne, as exemplified by her patience with Hazel, even when Hazel is so occupied by “milking the followers” that she forgets to bring Emery any food.
As Hazel, Atlanta treasure Mary Lynn Owen (who was also in Ms. Laufer’s Sirens) delivers another eccentric performance, a caregiver whose exasperation and impatience are constantly at war with her affection and duty. Recently fired from her waitressing job for pouring hot coffee on the lap of a jerk who wanted “the pretty waitress not the old one,” she desperately needs the “tithes” of the cult, at least until the diner manager hires her back, which, considering all the business the cult is bringing to the area, will happen eventually.
As Luanne, Jade’ Davis is all wide-eyed adoration and warm-puppy affection. For all that, she is at heart a force of nature, and is a delight from her first entrance up through the trap door – the only means of ingress to the glorious set designed by Isabel and Moriah Curley-Clay. Okay, there’s a balcony that can be used to “address the crowds” if only Emery weren’t so agoraphobic.
Justin Anderson makes a most welcome return to the director’s chair and keeps the play jumping at a fast pace for its intermissionless 100 minutes. Sound and Lights (David Reingold on lights, Bailey Gafeney on sound *) are also effective, particularly the green-washed dream sequences and the crown chants and noises that seem right in our midst.
So, in the final analysis, I loved every minute of Rooted, and, like a pea plant with its human host, I found myself often leaning in to engage with every moment,
-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com #htcRooted)
( * )The program tells us she adapted the design from “the original sound design by Andrew Duncan Will and Dewey Dellay”