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The Trinity River Plays

Also see John's review of reasons to be pretty

Trinity River Plays
Jacqueline Williams, Penny Johnson Jerald, Karen Aldridge and Christiana Clark
For her 10th play to be produced at the Goodman, playwright Regina Taylor has written a sprawling trilogy that explores the bonds between the women of an African-American family in the middle class South Oak Cliff neighborhood of Dallas, Texas, between 1978 and 1996. At its center is Iris, who's 17 years old at the beginning of the first play (called Jarfly, a reference to cicadas, insects that transform from worms into flying insects in their 17th year of life). Iris is the daughter of Rose, a single mother who is absent entirely from the first play, set in 1978. Rose is off in San Antonio for schooling that will enable her to win a promotion and get a salary increase so she'll be able to pay the tuition for aspiring writer Iris at Southern Methodist University. Rose's sister Daisy is in the house and babysitting in Rose's absence. Daisy's 19-year-old daughter Jasmine is staying with them as well. Daisy and Rose are both single mothers, though Daisy's been married three times. Rose has never been married, apparently, and Iris's father is nowhere to be seen. Through the three plays of this trilogy, Taylor explores the legacy of these two black families living without men—the difficulty Iris and Jasmine will have relating to men into their adulthood—as well as the complicated relationships with their mothers and the aunts and grandmothers in their extended families.

In Jarfly, Iris is a gawky but bright teenager, with a crush on a neighbor boy—the athletic Jack whom she tutors but loses when Jack has a fling with her wild and sexy cousin Jasmine. Much of the dialogue in this first play is quite funny and has the feel of an above-average situation comedy until things take a sudden and dark turn. Seventeen years pass between the action of Jarfly and the second play, Rain, in which Iris, now a successful writer in New York, returns home in 1995 for her mother's birthday. Again, the banter is sharp and witty as we witness Iris' resentment of her mother's more nurturing relationship toward cousin Jasmine, now a chronic alcoholic and drug addict. We soon learn, though, that Iris is newly divorced and Rose has been diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Iris, now without a husband and deciding to take time off from her job at a magazine, is now fully back in the ranch-style house (expertly designed by Todd Rosenthal) and the family drama she left behind years earlier.

Rain is the longest of the three plays, and deals with the year in which Iris stays in Dallas to care for Rose and tries to reconcile their difficult relationship. The final play is called Ghoststory—and that title may make it an acceptable spoiler to reveal that Rose has died of cancer. The action occurs in 1996, shortly after Rain concludes, and it takes place during the weekend of Rose's funeral. Iris' husband Frank arrives from New York for the funeral, bringing along some unresolved feelings for Iris which leads to some competition with Jack, now a divorced man dating iris.

Taylor's trilogy has fascinating characters and in this first production (a transfer of the world premiere staging at the Dallas Theater Center last fall), directed by Ethan McSweeny, a marvelous cast to bring them to life. Chicago actress Karen Aldridge as Iris is equally convincing as a sweet naf at age 17 and as an emotionally baggage-laden professional of 34. In her range from giddiness to despair and grief, she's always fascinating to watch and we become invested in her journey. TV and film actress Penny Johnson Jerald ("24"'s Sherry Palmer) creates a rock of a character as Rose. She's tough and seemingly indestructible when we meet her, and still a fighter as the pain of her cancer becomes debilitating.

Jacqueline Williams as Aunt Daisy is another fountain of strength—keeping the family together and her own spirits strong in the face of three failed marriages and numerous low-paying jobs that vanish as the economy and the community change. Christiana Clark is a floozy, boozy Jasmine—quite the good time girl as a 19-year-old in 1978, but increasingly desperate in 1995 and '96. Jefferson A. Russell effectively plays two very different characters: Ray Earl, Jasmine's irresponsible but not absent father; and Iris' button-down attorney ex-husband Frank, product of an upper-middle class African-American Chicago family. As Jack Samuel, Ray Gates manages quite nicely to be both the 17-year-old jock of the first play and the charming but fading weekend warrior Jack has grown into in the third.

While the characters and performances are rich, and the themes important to explore, the play seems to need some continued work. At over three hours (including two intermissions), it feels long. That feeling may be exacerbated by the script's choppy arc. The action sometimes stalls, and moods change without warning or being fully earned. This being only the first production of the plays, none of those are irredeemable or unfixable sins. With some prudent editing, The Trinity River Plays could appeal to a wide audience for its illuminating look at a slice of African-American life that is accessible and ought to be resonant to all.

The Trinity River Plays will be performed at the Goodman Theatre's Albert Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, Chicago, through February 20, 2011. For ticket information, visit www.goodmantheatre.org, the box office, or call 312-443-3800.


Photo: Eric Y. Exit

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-- John Olson



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