With most cult leaders, a fervent following is the goal, the hoped-for endgame of a deliberate, calculated process to bring vulnerable people under their sway, ripe for exploitation.
But when it comes to the reclusive Emery (Lisa Tucker), an amateur botanist who lives in a treehouse, a cult following is the unwelcome byproduct of her experiments exploring plant behavior, which are broadcast on YouTube.
It’s a clever set-up by playwright Deborah Zoe Laufer, rife with possibilities — some of them realized — to explore the inanities of celebrity culture, the herd instinct that has led humanity to such grief over the centuries, the need for a cause, the universal search for meaning, the question of what nature has to teach us.
But “Rooted” does not ultimately deliver on the promise of its premise in an intermittently intriguing but ultimately unsatisfying production at Lyric Stage Company of Boston. Running 100 intermission-less minutes, it’s helmed by artistic director Courtney O’Connor, who also directed Laufer’s “Be Here Now” two years ago.
A sense of place and mood are deftly established by Janie E. Howland’s set design, dominated by a large oak tree branch that crosses the stage from upstage right to downstage left. Emery’s treehouse is named Mabel, and she has also given names to the dozen or so plants whose level of consciousness she is trying to ascertain.
(These flora are far more benevolent than Audrey II in Lyric Stage’s 2019 Howland-designed production of “Little Shop of Horrors,” with puppet design by Cameron McEachern.)
Emery wears a broad-brimmed gardener’s hat (the costume design is by Chelsea Kerl), utilizes a walker, and is heavily dependent on her older sister, Hazel (Karen MacDonald), who has been taking care of Emery since they were children.
To Emery’s bewilderment and alarm, her videos make her an online sensation. Environmental activists embrace her as a kind of eco-messiah, one who can heal a wounded planet — and perhaps heal their own wounded souls. As in the Peter Sellers classic “Being There” (1979), they see in her what they need to see and hear what they want to hear. “You have unleashed all kinds of crazy,” Hazel bluntly tells her.
Sure enough, true believers are flocking to a field near Emery’s treehouse in the small town of Millerville, eager to see their savior in the flesh and imbibe more of her wisdom. One of them, young Luanne (Katherine Callaway), makes it inside the treehouse. (Luanne was also a character in “Be Here Now,” and she remains as ingenuous and spacy as ever.)
“Everyone I talked to, all those people told me before they saw your videos, they didn’t know what to do with their lives,” Luanne tells Emery. “They didn’t have, like . . . hope. Or a purpose. And I have to say, I was kind of like that too.” (In a seeming contradiction of character, Luanne proclaims that she does not believe in global warming. Would a devotee of Emery’s hold that belief?)
We hear the crowd of would-be acolytes chanting “Heal us!” from outside the treehouse, and then, more aggressively, when Emery declines to show herself, “Reveal yourself!” You may have a similar request of Tucker. Her portrayal is not distinctive enough to make us care enough about Emery and whether she can heal her own spiritual wounds. Even granting that Emery is supposed to be a wan figure, Tucker leans a bit too far in that direction, diminishing the stakes for the audience and creating an aura of listlessness.
It’s left to MacDonald to inject life into “Rooted” — a challenge she has met countless times over the course of her outstanding career on Boston stages. She rises to the occasion again here.
MacDonald’s Hazel commands attention from the moment she clambers up through the entrance of the treehouse, attired in a blazingly red waitress uniform and knee-high white boots. Feeling trapped in her dead-end existence, Hazel longs for wider horizons, different people and places — in short, a change.
“Rooted” contains elements of comedy and satire and drama, but it works best as a character study, with Hazel as its focus. The Lyric production drags whenever MacDonald is not onstage.
Might there be a way to monetize Emery’s cult-leader status? Might a new life, and a new identity, even be obtainable for Hazel, in a roundabout way, from the idolatry being showered on her sister? We care, a lot, about the answer to that second question.
Play by Deborah Zoe Laufer. Directed by Courtney O’Connor. Presented by Lyric Stage Company of Boston. Through June 25. Tickets $25-$80. 617-585-5678, www.lyricstage.com