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Three actors perform a scene from "Built To Float" around a kitchen table.
Heather Schroeder (left to right), Suzanne Roush and Rachel Wansker in Built To Float (Photo by Elizabeth Cooper)

Review: Essential Theatre’s “Built To Float” starts out strong, then loses focus

When we first meet Tess, the main character in the new play Built to Float, she is drowning a bit. Family issues have enveloped her and left her with psychological scars, making it hard to rise above the surface at times.

Co-winner of the 2018 Essential Theatre Playwriting Award — along with the upcoming Woke — Rachel Graf Evans’ Built to Float (running through August 25 at the West End Performing Arts Center) is a drama-comedy that works tightly for a while but can’t quite close the deal. 

A young woman in her late 20s, Tess (Rachel Wansker) has virtually no life except for work and taking care of her ailing mother Marjorie (Suzanne Roush) at home. Marjorie needles her daughter frequently, especially about her career choices. (Tess was a pre-med student but decided nursing wasn’t for her.) Sister Roz (Heather Schroeder) comes by to visit and urges Tess to be more active. (Marjorie’s husband is discussed much but has been out of the picture for quite a while.)

Roz feels that Tess is overwhelmed, and she’s right. A frugal type who never takes vacation, Tess works as a phlebotomist. One day she meets William (Alex Van), who is about to take custody of his two nephews, one of whom is diabetic. Trying to learn more about the disease, he is looking for some help with the boys and hires Tess. 

This is the 20th anniversary of Essential Theatre, which produces these days in the summer and features character-driven fare that can be a welcome counter-balance to splashier, bigger work. 2017’s festival had a dandy offering — Lauren Gunderson’s sly Ada and the Memory Engine, one of my favorite plays from last year. 

Built to Float is described as a magical-realist family drama. The first act is sharp, and most scenes are handled efficiently by director Peter Hardy, even when the tone shifts from comedic to dramatic to downright odd and surreal. Without giving too much away, suffice it to say that everything is not always what it appears. The first sense of that is a visit home from Roz. 

The Atlanta-based Evans has a natural flair for dialogue and builds four full-dimensional characters. All the performers are quite convincing, and it’s especially gratifying to see Roush around again. An underrated actress, she gave an excellent performance in Essential’s Ravens & Seagulls four years ago. William and Roz also have a revelatory talk at the beginning of the second act that is handled smoothly by Van and newcomer Schroeder. 

Built to Float is held together initially by the writing and the acting, but ultimately only feels like two-thirds of a play. Every character, it seems, has his/her own set of crises to deal with. Roz is dealing with addiction, and William has his own secrets, as do Tess and Marjorie. In 90 minutes, the play covers mental illness, death, guilt, recovery, abuse and more. It gets to be a bit much. Some late flashback scenes, including the return of Tess’ father, are heavy-handed and awkward, often lacking in clarity. It’s a shame because for a while, the play has been rather sturdy and interesting.

When Built to Float has ended, Tess has — theoretically — learned that she doesn’t have to sink, but can float instead when life has knocked her into the ocean. The play uses swimming metaphors — an abundance of them — throughout its duration. Along that same line, it can be said that Evans’ play seems comfortable enough to be in the water but eventually splashes around a lot when smoother, more linear strokes would seem more appropriate.