A big city foodie reaches inside a 2000-pound animal and pulls out something surprising, a sense of self. That pretty much sums up what Heidi Armbruster’s new play Dairyland is about. The play is making its world premiere at PlayMakers Repertory Company in Chapel Hill. It also marks the eighth world premiere under the leadership of PlayMakers’ Producing Artistic Director Vivienne Benesch.
Allie is a New York City food critic, who has a slight obsession with cows and is negotiating between online dating sites, ex-boyfriends, and grass-fed lies perpetrated by the farm-to-table movement. Headstrong, she locks horns with her boss, his assistant, and a nemesis named Sunshine. It begins to look like it is game over for Allie’s career, so she leaves the city and returns home to her family’s farm in Wisconsin. And that is where the play finds its footing, albeit, in a heap of dirt.
Emily Bosco and Dan Toot do an ample job juggling multiple personas and the fast-paced comedic elements of the first act. As Allie’s ex-boyfriend and boss, Khalil LeSaldo proves to be a steady foil to the frenetic protagonist. But it is the tension between Allie, ruminatively played Claire Karpen, and Ray Dooley’s rock-solid, level headed portrayal of her father, that gives this play depth. Dairyland marks Dooley’s 100th production at PlayMakers. It is also arguably one of his finest performances in recent memory.
Benesch directs the play and smartly toys with the pacing and projections, particularly in the first act, to create a visual and rhythmic ruse. Her off-kilter approach sets the audience up, almost dismissively so, for a surprisingly symbolic climax and poignant second half.
What makes this play work are its universal themes of family and forgiveness. Its goodness is found in its underbelly, an underlying message about cultivating empathy. And that is an ideal worth propagating.