Monday, January 31, 2011

Powerful Emotions Flow Throughout "The Trinity River Plays" -- Theater Review

Theater Review

The Trinity River Plays
A new play by Regina Taylor
in three acts titled Jar Fly, Rain and Ghoststory
Goodman Theatre, Chicago
Thru February 20, 2011

As I tried to convey above--and as the Chicago Tribune's Chris Jones did much more stridently in opening his review--"The Trinity River Plays" is deceptively titled.

Certainly, as evidenced by the work, playwright Regina Taylor is a highly skilled writer and perhaps her reasoning for the nomenclature was simply lost on me. But what I saw last night at the Goodman Theater was essentially one play in three individually-named acts, with the characters and story arc continuing throughout.

In revolving around an African-American family in Dallas, initially in 1978 and then 17 years later, Taylor's three-hour tale--written after losing her mother to ovarian cancer--focuses on relationships both contemptuous and compassionate, mournful and remorseful, bitter and bemusing. As such, it reminded me a bit of August: Osage County, though not quite as sprawling in cast size nor levels of the on-stage house that served as the sole set piece. 

I can't really describe too much of the plot without revealing key crises, and though the show was powerfully written and significantly moving, I felt it was a more interesting in its dialogue-driven narrative than in providing any particularly novel insights. In fact, the symbolism that Taylor tried to incorporate mostly came off as too overt or cloyingly contrived.

While Act 2 was clearly the best, I was never bored with Trinity River, which is saying a lot for a 3-act drama on a Sunday night, especially as I've been less than enthralled with much of what I've seen at the Goodman in recent seasons. This was one of the theater's best in recent memory, certainly of those staged in the larger Albert auditorium.

Karen Aldridge, who played Iris, a fictionalized alter ego for Taylor, was excellent, initially as a gawky 17-year-old girl and then as a thirty-something professional struggling to deal with grim circumstances, past and present. Christiana Clark is also quite strong as Jasmine, Iris' slightly older and much wilder cousin, while Penny Johnson Jerald and Jacqueline Williams shine as their respective mothers.

Under Ethan McSweeny's direction, the new play, which world premiered in Dallas last October, may not have remarkable depth beneath the surface, but I was substantially captivated by a family's frayed yet tightly-bound kinship, as this 'River' ran through it.

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