TheaterWorks is currently presenting an excellent and intelligent production of Jez Butterworth’s intriguing play, “The River.” A self-contained work, with just one set and three actors, this show manages to hold one spellbound throughout its eighty minute running time. Director Rob Ruggiero has done a terrific job of creating the play’s milieu of a cabin above a river, thanks in large part to Brian Prather’s marvelous and intricate scenic design. Ruggiero also has a trio of wonderful actors at his disposal, and they all seem to really live and breathe the environment of the play. Only knowing “The River” from Hugh Jackman starring in it on Broadway, this play is actually extremely interesting and grows more and more eye-opening as it goes along. With “The River,” TheaterWorks has begun its new season with a grand production of a play that you will likely be talking about long after the show has ended.
The unusual nature of the playwright’s work begins as soon as one opens up the program, as the three characters in “The River” are signified as “The Man,” “The Woman,” and “The Other Woman.” While it would be possible to think that the lack of specific names for these characters would render them opaque or empty, the three people in this play are deeply fascinating. It also helps that the actors chosen for these roles are simply superb. As the central character of “The Man,” Billy Carter is riveting, especially as he talks about fishing and the river, and never more so than in the scene where he carefully and methodically prepares a fish to be cooked and eaten.
It is this precise attention to such small details which makes “The River” so good and one really gets caught up in the action and what will happen next. Both of the actresses in the show are similarly fantastic. As “The Woman,” Andrea Goss is beautiful and striking as she interacts with “The Man,” and one almost hangs on her every word and gesture. Like her costar, Billy Carter, she doesn’t seem to be acting so much as simply existing as her character, which displays the authenticity the director has created for this show.
However, and without giving away too much of the plot, “The River” is not a linear play, even with its small cast and one set. This is because the playwright has also created the role of “The Other Woman.” As played by the fine Jasmine Batchelor, she almost radiates energy and joy and she endows her scenes with a rich depth of feeling. What’s so mysterious about this set-up of these two women is that, in “The River,” they almost seem interchangeable. This is definitely not due to the lack of talent by these two extraordinary actresses, but that the play is designed in the fashion that a scene will begin with one woman being onstage and then finish with the other woman being onstage, in the same scene. What’s more, the way “The Man” interacts with both of them is pretty similar, almost creating the impression that the play is somehow jumping back and forth in time.
Still, I would hate to reveal any more of the plot, for this back and forth interaction of characters only adds to the puzzle-like way that this play has been constructed. In addition to the fabulously designed set, Tricia Barsamian’s costumes are absolutely ideal, and John Lasiter’s lighting design almost creates a hallucinatory effect. Director Rob Ruggiero has done an amazing job with “The River,” and cements the fact that this play is just perfect for regional theatres, even without the star power of Hugh Jackman in the lead.
As one gets more and more caught up in the web of scenes in this play, “The River” at TheaterWorks becomes even more hypnotic and disorienting. This is not to say that this production is ever confusing: indeed, everything that happens onstage is completely lucid and, again, the attention to detail on the part of everyone involved makes this work a quiet stunner. The playwright and director of “The River” have more than a few surprises up their sleeves, transforming what could have been a straightforward theatrical experience into one that contains a panoply of nuances and layers. Try to see “The River” at TheaterWorks and don’t be surprised if it inspires quite a bit of discussion after the final curtain.
“The River” continues at TheaterWorks in Hartford, CT through November 11, 2018. For tickets, please visit www.theaterworkshartford.org or call the box office at 860-527-7838.
Photo: Billy Carter and Andrea Goss
Photo by Lanny Nagler