THE ROAD AND THE RIVER
Hope and Nonthings Productions
at Transient Theatre
at the Greenview Arts Center
Pandora Knight is dead when The Road and the River begins. During the three months since her suicide--if it was suicide and not an accident or murder--her brother, Sheridan, has secluded himself in the house they shared, wallowing in grief: recalling a childhood incident when his sister was punished for eating a rose out of the garden, he vows to "eat roses by the dozen" in her memory. Christopher Delord, Pandora's boyfriend, is likewise shocked and sorrowing. His widowed father exhorts him to get on with his life, and even his own thoughts--represented by those twin urban demons, a trash-scavenging derelict and a three-piece corporate cog--mock his romantic melancholy.
"I don't know. And "I don't know' is all I need to know," Christopher confides to us, positioning himself downstage after freezing the play's action. "The atmosphere is dense with unanswered questions . . . Don't look at me like I'm crazy, or, worse yet, self- absorbed." But he is self-absorbed, for what we call mourning the dead is really mourning our own loss, and the adolescent self-indulgence with which he and Sheridan wear their weeds is as annoying as the cutesy break-down-the-fourth-wall theatrical devices that threaten to turn The Road and the River into yet another exercise in recycled avant-garde gimmickry.
But about a third of the way through, playwright Ian Pierce suddenly finds the confidence to step aside and let the story be told (though the zany alter egos are retained in the form of an irreverent Greek chorus). At that point the play begins to move--we discover the circumstances of Pandora's untimely demise and the reasons for Sheridan's eccentric response. By the time Pandora finally appears (with spectacularly bad timing, following the curtain call), her benediction is unnecessary, for we have learned along with Christopher and Sheridan. "I still miss Pandora," Sheridan confesses, to which Christopher replies, "And you're going to miss her for a long time, maybe forever. . . . Just take what you can from the memories and then learn to live your own life."
John R. Pierson directs a Columbia College-based ensemble who acquit themselves enthusiastically, if ingenuously. Particularly fine performances come from Timothy Vahle as the mercurial Sheridan and Mark A. Fossen as Christopher's father, and Christopher and Sheridan engage in a hilarious beach-umbrella duel, wittily choreographed by Corinna Bryan. But The Road and the River remains a flawed production. At least it's a departure from Pierce's precious The Fragmented Veins of Staci and Cayce last season. This play exhibits a more mature and focused narrative technique that, if sustained, might herald the arrival of a welcome new playwright on the Chicago theater scene.
In Eugene Ionesco's The Lesson, a tutor brutalizes his student. In Ron Hutchinson's Rat in the Skull, an inspector brutalizes a suspect. In Harold Pinter's One for the Road, a warden brutalizes his prisoners. In fact there are any number of boot camp/boarding school/insane asylum melodramas that likewise revolve around one character's subjugation of another. In Greg Nagan's Occupation, the cat-and-mouse games are played by a supervisor and his newly hired subordinate, a scenario that makes for problems. For one thing, the boss is recognizably psychotic from the very beginning, and his manipulative techniques are so elementary as to be familiar to any grade-schooler (the age at which our mothers usually abandoned these techniques as no longer effective). For another, the hapless employee has a summa cum laude degree and an inch-thick resume, which should surely enable him to find less stressful work even in today's straitened times. With no explanation of why the employee remains to be beaten and humiliated into zombielike passivity, and nary a hint of reversal in power as the play progresses, what we're left with is a sadistic bully and a helpless victim in a relationship no less static for being violent. This allows us plenty of time to recall the many other plays that treat this dynamic much more plausibly.
According to a program note, Occupation was developed through "discussions, improvisations, and workshops." These seem to have concentrated too much on interaction and too little on premise. But this debut production by the Studio 108 ensemble reveals sufficient talent--David Bryson, wearing the zonked-out smile of an Edward Koren cartoon character, is especially delightful as the cruel employer--to make them worth watching.