Unearthly dramedy premiering at BTE needs some tweaking

“Into the Earth with You” — 2 stars

The unearthly “Into the Earth with You,” in its world premiere at Buffalo Theatre Ensemble, is thematically ambitious.

The family dramedy by writer/producer Brian Watkins addresses loss and grief, guilt and regret, love and doubt, trauma and depression. It does so while flirting with the supernatural, a genre Watkins — creator and executive producer of Amazon Prime Video’s sci-fi Western series “Outer Range” — understands.

The problem is that, at this point, the play feels more like a collection of loose threads than a finished tapestry.

The cast, made up entirely of BTE members, is strong, and the production has an able director in ensemble member Kurt Naebig. But “Into the Earth With You” needs some work.

The story centers on three sisters and their relationship with each other and their late grandfather, a national book award winner and a historian of some standing, who raised them in a rustic cabin in a remote mountain town.

The play commences with the disembodied voice of the elderly, ailing Granddad (Norm Woodel in an audio cameo). As the lights come up, we watch as youngest granddaughter and her grandfather’s caregiver May Carver (Lisa Dawn) listens tearfully to his final will and testament, recorded earlier that day moments before he died.

In Buffalo Theatre Ensemble's premiere of Brian Watkins’ “Into the Earth With You,” three sisters — played by Laura Leonardo Ownby, left, Kelli Walker and Lisa Dawn — navigate loss, grief and unresolved trauma. Courtesy of Rex Howard Photography

Soon after, May’s siblings — oldest sister Quinn (Kelli Walker) and middle sister Carly (Laura Leonardo Ownby) — arrive to help sort through Granddad’s belongings. They learn from May that he wanted to be buried wearing his prized amethyst and laid to rest in a simple pine box built by longtime friend and neighbor Jim Elbert (a sympathetic Robert Jordan Bailey) without ceremony.

“Care for each other,” he urges them in his final recording, which concludes with his advice to “get on with your lives.”

That’s something Quinn and Carly seem eager to do. Recently divorced and needing a fresh start, Quinn (the enigmatic Walker, whose performance suggests her character is repressing something) has given up drinking and is considering leaving town. Impatient to finish the cleanup, two-fisted drinker Carly (a purposively abrasive Ownby whose character’s hostility seems to stem from deep-seated pain), needles her siblings.

Except for the grief-stricken Jim, the family member most affected by Granddad’s passing is May, whose passion and vulnerability Dawn effortlessly conveys.

Buffalo Theatre Ensemble members Laura Leonardo Ownby, left, Kelli Walker, Lisa Dawn and Robert Jordan Bailey star in the company’s premiere of the unearthly family dramedy “Into the Earth With You” by Brian Watkins. Courtesy of Rex Howard Photography

The tension between the sisters seems to be rooted in a shared emotional trauma, possibly related to their parents, whose absence Watkins alludes to but doesn’t entirely explain. Palpably prickly, they profess their love for each other but see each other only about once a month despite living in the same town. All three “have a complicated relationship with the truth” for reasons unsaid. And, like their grandfather, they all seem prone to alcohol abuse.

The problem is Watkins tiptoes around issues he never fully examines. Clarifying the back story and his characters’ motivations might help. As for the paranormal subtext, it feels extraneous, its purpose unclear.

In its current incarnation, “Into the Earth With You” doesn’t live up to its promise. With some revisions, however, it might become a drama worthy of BTE’s stage.

• • •

Location: Buffalo Theatre Ensemble at the McAninch Arts Center, College of DuPage, 425 Fawell Blvd., Glen Ellyn, (630) 942-4000,,

Showtimes: 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday through June 2

Tickets: $44

Running time: About 2 hours, with intermission

Rating: For teens and older, adult themes and language, references death, alcoholism

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