Ready for the River | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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Ready for the River

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Impulse Theatre Company, at the Body Politic Studio Theatre.

If all Impulse Theatre put onstage were Ken Puttbach's brilliantly economical set and lighting and director Stephen Gray's uncannily evocative stage pictures, this could be a truly fantastic production of Neal Bell's surrealistic road drama Ready for the River. Sitting in eerily dim light, hearing the sounds of baying hounds and twangy guitar music, one is plunged into the expansive loneliness of the American heartland. The play only stalls once the mood has been established and the dialogue begins.

Bell's play is more cinematic than theatrical, sporadically engaging but static. He charts the journey of a mother and her daughter--a harrowing, nightmare-filled escape from the mother's violent husband, who murdered the man who tried to repossess their land. The script borrows equally from the Wim Wenders school of antibuddy road pictures (Paris, Texas and Kings of the Road), early-80s farm-crisis flicks (Places in the Heart), and coming-of-age pictures (insert your choice here). Long sequences in a speeding car, in which the mother and daughter grow to understand each other, are unspeakably stagnant onstage. Bell's meandering dialogue and skeletal plot both seem to have been written with cool scenery and sound-track music in mind. And the characters are vague, as if Bell hoped that top-dollar Hollywood actors could fill in the missing details.

The actors Gray has assembled are competent and sympathetic, particularly Melissa Culverwell--she's both charismatic and heart-wrenchingly honest as the mother, trying to hang on to her rapidly maturing daughter. But unfortunately Gray had to direct them on a stage, not from behind a camera.

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