“This Bitter Earth”
TheaterWorks Hartford is currently presenting an excellent, intense production of Harrison David Rivers’ sobering two character play, “This Bitter Earth.” Focusing on such topics as race, politics, gay rights, and living one’s life without apologies, this show covers a lot of ground. Still, at the center of “This Bitter Earth” are Jesse and Neil, an interracial gay couple, played, respectively, by the wonderful Damian Thompson and Tom Holcomb.
During the play’s intermission-less ninety minute running time, one comes to really care for these two men. David Mendizabal is the expert director of the show, which jumps back and forth in time, as the playwright presents his story in a non-linear fashion. The results are, by turns, striking, heartfelt, entertaining, and alarming, making “This Bitter Earth” at TheaterWorks Hartford a play which is definitely worth checking out.
What really cements this show, and truly makes it work, though, are the terrific performances by the two actors in the play. Damian Thompson plays Jesse, a black playwright, who is constantly readjusting his life to find a sense of balance. As it turns out, his white boyfriend, Neil, portrayed by Tom Holcomb, is much more political and more of an activist, even becoming a major advocate for Black Lives Matter, which Jesse cannot embrace in the same fashion.
Still, there is love between the two men, which defies any of the differences between them. Thompson is enormously sympathetic as Jesse, giving his character many shadings, and his portrayal is really quite fine. Matching him is Tom Holcomb, as Neil, a man who is set out to fight the world for a better life, not only for himself, but for everyone. Still, Holcomb also reveals the character’s tenderness and emotional center underneath, and this actor gives an equally moving performance.
As mentioned, “This Bitter Earth” jumps around in time, so the play can become a bit unnerving, with one never knowing exactly what scene will come next. Still, the director and his actors, as well as the talented design team, keep everything lucid from beginning to end. The set, extremely well designed by Riw Rakkulchon, is essentially the bedroom of the couple’s apartment, as well as hallways leading to other rooms, though various parts of the stage can instantly become a dance club or a city street, with just a change in the lighting (the superb lighting design is by Christina Watanabe). The clothing which these two men wear also shapes their characters and the costumes by Devario D. Simmons are spot-on and feel completely right. Music also plays a huge role in this play and Fredrick Kennedy’s sound design is crystal clear.
Without giving too much away, “This Bitter Earth” keeps revisiting the same scene between the two men, when they are very drunk and laughing and embracing each other in public, after spending the night out at a bar and trying to get back to their apartment. Each time this scene is played out, the audience is allowed to see more and more of their interaction, with an increasing sense of danger of what will happen next (which is not to be revealed here).
One really comes to root for Jesse and Neil, despite their fights and some major problems getting in the way of their relationship. Thanks to the strong performances by Damian Thompson and Tom Holcomb, and the sure-footed direction by David Mendizabal, this play really takes hold of the audience and the production is both deeply gratifying and, ultimately, heartstopping. “This Bitter Earth” at TheaterWorks Hartford is certainly a show which will stay with you long after the play has ended.
“This Bitter Earth” continues performances at TheaterWorks in Hartford, CT through March 20, 2022. For tickets, please visit http://www.twhartford.org or call the box office at 860-527-7838.
Photo: Damian Thompson and Tom Holcomb
Photo by Mike Marques