Ruby Rae Spiegel has suffered for her art: As a junior at Yale, she earned a C-minus in the class "Work and Daily Life in Global Capitalism." But the grade, she says, can be attributed not to partying or the distractions of a first love affair. Instead of having her head buried in a textbook, she was writing her first full-length play.
"I found the time to write a play. But I did not find the time to do my homework," says Spiegel with a smile during a recent Skype interview from Los Angeles. "It was a huge learning experience for me, because I was really teaching myself to write."
The play she penned, "Dry Land," went on to wow critics when it premiered last fall at New York's Here Arts Center, produced by the downtown theater company Colt Coeur. The story centers on a popular teenage girl, Amy, who befriends a fellow swim team member, an awkward newcomer to the school, to enlist her help with a pressing matter. She's pregnant and is planning a self-induced abortion.
Reviewers praised Spiegel, then 21, as a fresh voice on the scene. The New York Times's Ben Brantley called "Dry Land" "tender, caustic, funny and harrowing, often all at the same time" and the New York Post's Elizabeth Vincentelli gushed that it "feels like the first step in an inevitable rise."
Company One is staging the play's Boston premiere at the Boston Center for the Arts through Oct. 30.
Now 22, Spiegel has actually received warm reviews before, for her playlet "Carrie & Francine," produced at a shorts festival in 2011. She was fresh out of high school, yet her work was singled out as big news in a fest that included short plays by writers Christopher Durang and Neil LaBute.
"It's a little intense to put something out into the world as your work that you wrote when you were 16," says Spiegel, who has a cherubic face and an easygoing air. "I was writing bad poetry at the same time."
For "Dry Land," she recalls traveling back and forth from New Haven to New York on the Metro-North to attend rehearsals and previews just as she was starting her senior year at Yale. She says it was like two worlds, college life and career, "getting merged" and "feeling like a kid and an adult at the same time."
Since graduating last May, Spiegel moved to LA and joined the writing staff for the upcoming Netflix mystery series "The OA," created by actress-writer Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij (collaborators on the films "Sound of My Voice" and "The East"). "I couldn't be luckier," she says. "It's a pretty insane thing that's happened to me."
The idea for "Dry Land" stemmed from a New Republic article Spiegel read about the rise of do-it-yourself abortions. It detailed how self-induced abortion has been "present in women's lives for centuries and the various methods that have been used over the years," she says.
"It talked about women who made themselves fall down the stairs and all the different ways that women have tried to do bodily impact on themselves to induce abortion. So I was thinking, what is the complicity between a woman who's asking another woman to help her do something kind of terrible to her body on the surface, but actually is something that feels like freedom to her?"
Not long after, an image of one girl asking another girl to punch her in the stomach became lodged in her mind. She set the play in the locker room of a high school in Florida, a state that requires a parental waiver for a teenager to have an abortion.
The play's emotional heart, though, came from the complex reaction she had to her own pregnancy scare in college after having sex with a guy she liked but who wasn't her boyfriend.
"I was freaked out about my response and didn't quite understand it," she says. "It's that feeling of being almost diseased, like you have something alive in your body and you actually have to do something about it. It's a ticking time bomb."
She also felt confused by the mixed messages that society sends to young women about sex and sexuality. "I think I felt a bit of shame, even though what I was experiencing was something very average," she says. "With the shame around these conversations, many women just want to keep it behind closed doors. But then what we have is this roll-back of our rights."
In the play, Ester is a shy, awkward newcomer to the school and a star athlete, while Amy is part of the "in" crowd. Yet she turns to Ester because, Spiegel says, "she feels like she has power over her, and her secret will be safe with her. If she has the abortion, there will be no institutional memory about the fact among any of her friends. So she goes to somebody who she plans not to get close to."
Spiegel says she was actually both girls in high school: "the awkward friendless person as well as the confident, sexual one, sometimes at the same time."
"I think women are often told that they have to conform to certain archetypes, but they often feel multivalence. So I tried to play with this — Ester emerging as a very strong and confident person by the end, and Amy allowing herself to come to terms with her vulnerabilities and weakness."
Inside a rehearsal hall at the Calderwood Pavilion, director Steven Bogart and his cast have just finished their first "stumble-through" of the full play. Stephanie Recio, who's playing Amy, relishes how her character "curses like a sailor, as do I."
Yet understanding Amy's cruelty has been a challenge. "She can be a really vicious girl, even after Ester has been so kind to her," says Recio, seated next to Bogart and Eva Hughes, who plays Ester. Still, she adds, "Something transpires between Ester and Amy that turns into something real, that maybe neither one of them has felt before with another friend."
While Spiegel may have had an auspicious beginning with "Carrie & Francine," she says "Dry Land" was rejected from most of the New York theater companies she sent it to.
"They were all like, 'Oh, definitely send us your next thing. But we cannot stage this in front of our subscription audience,' " she says, referring to a particularly graphic scene late in the play. "Honestly, some theaters were like, 'So do you feel like that's integral to the piece — to have that happen onstage?' "
Spiegel, despite her youth and inexperience, stuck to her guns. "That felt like everything to me. It says something very political. If I'm saying, 'Don't be ashamed of this experience' and then choose to leave it off stage, that wouldn't be right."
Presented by Company One Theatre. At Plaza Theatre, Boston Center
for the Arts, through Oct. 30. Tickets: $15-$38. 617-933-8600, www.bostontheatrescene.com
Christopher Wallenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.