The Trinity River Plays
Also see John's review of reasons to be pretty
In Jarfly, Iris is a gawky but bright teenager, with a crush on a neighbor boythe 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 Ghoststoryand 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 naïf 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 strengthkeeping 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 Jasminequite 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.