There's precious little that's clear and pure about life in "Crystal Springs."
Inspired by real events, Kathy Rucker's hot-button drama dives into the muddy waters of guilt and regret surrounding the suicide of a teenage girl. The tyranny of social media, the small-mindedness of suburban society and the inability of parents to understand their children are all targeted in this cautionary tale about the digital age.
Rucker has a lovely ear for the way real people speak and her insights into peer pressure across age groups are quite perceptive, yet "Crystal Springs" never cuts close enough to the bone in its world premiere. Directed by Anna Jordan, the 70-minute drama runs through March 23 at San Francisco's Eureka Theatre.
Rucker starts with a provocative premise, plumbing the real-life consequence of online misbehavior. The action unfolds backward, starting from the aftermath of the death of a 16-year-old girl named Haley (a sensitive turn by Marissa Keltie). Unfortunately, the narrative feels choppy, and there is too much time spent on characters that are more devices than people, such as the hard-nosed newspaper reporter Claire (Heather Robison), who is really just a conduit to get inside the head of the grieving mother Rose (Amy Prosser).
Rose has been ruined by the loss of her daughter, a vulnerable girl who was pranked by her former BFF Jenna (Siobhan Fitzgerald) on Facebook. What starts out as one teen's misdeed somehow gets twisted into something far more sinister. Rose, who naively thought that denying her daughter a smartphone would protect her from cyber bullies, is forced to confront not only mourning but also the question of whom to blame.
Rucker skillfully draws connections between the pettiness of adult life and the snarkiness of the teen circle. Haley and Jenna aren't the only ones obsessed with popularity. Rose admonishes her daughter for caring too much about status, but she's guilty of freezing Jenna's mom Linda (Sally Clawson) out of the neighborhood book club. Fitting in and keeping up appearances are just as crucial for one generation as for the next.
Indeed, the playwright brings such wit and vitality to the mothers' power struggles that the central teenage issues don't seem as compelling. Perhaps if there were more scenes between Jenna and Haley, the tragedy would have more emotional traction. Rucker may also want to flesh out the role of Mia (a captivating Susan Shay), a fascinating character who never gets sufficiently developed.
Keltie, who was so electric in "Terminus" at the Magic, brings great vulnerability to Haley. Driven by the certainty that her life is over and she will be forever branded a social pariah, she narrates her own demise in an aria of rage and pain live-streamed for all the world to see. It's a very poignant interlude that captures the primal impulses at the core of this piece. If there were more such moments, "Crystal Springs" would have more raw power and more flow.
By Kathy Rucker
Through: March 23
Where: Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson St., San Francisco
Running time: 70 minutes, no intermission
Tickets: $20-$65, 800-838-3006, www.crystalspringstheplay.com