In Sowelu Theater Ensemble's production of Eliza Anderson's The Water Principle, Deirdre Atkinson plays Addie, the lone occupant of a cabin in a desolate rural landscape. Food is scarce. Water is scarcer. Nearby derelict/developer Weed (Daniel Hill) gives Addie cans of beans in the hopes that she'll sign her land over to him so he can build a theme park on it. But nothing's doing. Addie believes a precious river runs beneath her property, and she refuses to relinquish her land. One day, a wacky "walker" named Skimmer (Michael Fetters) shows up, and of course, changes everything.
Anderson's script hails from the Beckett school of minimalism. The setting is grim and dreamlike, the characters in a kind of self-prescribed purgatory. They tell us little about themselves, their context taken for granted, which heightens the drama, puts it on the teetering precipice between reality and metaphor. We call this surrealism, and it is a dry, emotionless place. We aren't allowed to know the inhabitants; we can only watch what they do.
The way to handle this sort of material is to battle its confrontational ambiguity with the guns of purpose, but Sowelu's cast, as directed by Barry Hunt, hasn't done their homework. Both Hill and Fetters are showoffs; Fetters, a goofball who pinballs to and fro and waggles his tongue around; Hill, a wiseass in love with his own stilted, obnoxious delivery. There is potential for a rising lunatic tension to form between them—as Skimmer moves in on Weed's territory—but neither actor pays any attention to anyone but himself, and so it doesn't. Meanwhile, the starving, filthy Atkinson gives a sublimely controlled, quietly desperate, strangely sexy performance that falls right into a canyon, her bozo costars the cliff walls.
David Lipkind of the local band I Can Lick Any Son of a Bitch in the House scores this nonsense with a bitchin' ongoing twangy guitar riff, and Jeb Pearson's design work is appropriately stark, haunting, and elegant, including the clever use of a well-placed offstage camera. But it's all padding for a production that is ultimately as vapid as the liquid at its core.