Modest but intense ‘Five Mile Lake’ makes East Coast premiere at McCarter Theatre Center

Nathan Darrow and Kristen Bush co-star in "Five Mile Lake," which is at the Berlind Theatre at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton through May 31.

PHOTOS BY T. CHARLES ERICKSON

Nathan Darrow and Kristen Bush co-star in “Five Mile Lake,” which is at the Berlind Theatre at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton through May 31.

The program for “Five Mile Lake,” a new play that is at the McCarter Theatre Center’s Berlind Theatre through May 31, describes the setting as “A small, somewhat desolate town near Scranton, Pennsylvania. Winter.”

How small and desolate is it? Well, about half of it takes place in a bakery, and no customer ever walks through the door.

The store’s manager, Jamie (Tobias Segal), and lone employee, Mary (Kristen Bush), have more on their mind than how they’re going to pay the bills if no one is buying the muffins. Mary yearns to get out of this small town, but can’t leave because her brother Danny (Jason Babinsky) has just finished two tours of duty in Afghanistan, and is having trouble adjusting to civilian life, and needs her help. Jamie, meanwhile, is happy running the bakery (and fixing up his family’s lake house in his spare time), but has a secret crush on Mary.

Things get more complicated when Jamie’s brother Rufus (Nathan Darrow) and girlfriend Peta (Mahira Kakkar) stop by for a visit and a surprise stay at the lake house. He’s a grad student in New York, and she’s a magazine editor; in this small, somewhat desolate town near Scranton, Pa., this passes as a high-flying lifestyle.

But Mary looks nervous from the moment Rufus walks through the bakery’s door. Is there something in their past? And what are Rufus and Peta doing here in the first place? Rufus hasn’t been back home in years, and has hardly even been in touch.

Tobias Segal in "Five Mile Lake."

Tobias Segal co-stars in “Five Mile Lake.”

Past secrets are revealed, the web gets more tangled, one character does something shocking, there’s lots of conflict and, ultimately, a slightly hopeful resolution in this play, which was written by Rachel Bonds and is making its East Coast premiere at the McCarter in a production directed by McCarter artistic director Emily Mann.

Rufus, at one point, argues that people don’t really just change. They’re just revealed over time. And that’s kind of what happens in the play. A fuller picture of the characters — and especially of Rufus, Jamie and Mary — emerges, and just as our assessment of each character changes, so do the ways they look at each other. Bonds writes very natural-sounding dialogue, and evokes the messiness of real life by having her characters be defined not always by what they do, but by what they are — for sometimes unexplainable reasons — unable to do.

The play is as modest, in its way, as this bake shop. It’s about five young people — not kids anymore, but not yet settled firmly into adult life — trying to figure it all out, and making mistakes along the way, and trying some more.

Rufus’ field is classics, and his dissertation is on laments for the dead in Greek tragedy and in “The Iliad.” Ancient literature, he says, is “so much better than real life,” since it’s so intense and epic. But you can be intense without being epic. And that’s what this play is.

The play runs through May 31; visit McCarter.org.

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