Mixed emotions of ‘Trinity River Plays’ by Brittany Garrett
A cicada is not a typical thing to relate oneself to, but Iris (Chicago’s own Karen Aldridge) of “The Trinity River Plays” could not be better described both physically and characteristically than as that big-eyed, noisy bug which emerges for the rest of the world to see in increments of 17 years. Is “Jar Fly,” the first act of this play or perhaps the first play of this trilogy? It all depends on your point of view. Either way, the entire production dragged on to an unnecessary three hours with two intermissions. When the act opens with an energetic Iris on her 17th birthday, she is enthusiastically writing in her journal and viewers quickly find her true ambition,which is to eventually become a writer in the busy city of New York and leave her southern country home of Dallas.
Up to this point, playwright Regina Taylor could have been writing an autobiography, for she too was raised in Dallas where “The Trinity River Plays” had its premier. Because of the Texas focus, there are some references that do not make much sense to those viewers who have not been there. The actual Trinity River was briefly mentioned and its significance is not clear. These, however, are minuscule details that barely affect the plot at all.
Iris’s personality is diametrically opposed to her high school drop-out, drug-dealing thief of an older cousin Jasmine, played by Christina Clark with compelling energy. Iris and Jasmine’s friendship as teenagers is much more in tact compared to their later relationship in acts two and three. Although Iris is aware of her cousin’s bad habits, she still puts up with Jasmine and is seemingly connected in a mutual friendship. That is, a friendship that lasts only until Iris feels betrayed by her severely worsening cousin. Just like the female cicada in times of stressful fear, both Iris and Jasmine remain silent about the incident. This was a terrible move considering how the secret festers inside each of them until they both reach their own boiling points.
As the first intermission comes to a close and lights focus for the second act, “Rain,” the audience gets introduced to Rose (Penny Johnson Jerald) who is Iris’s mother. Away on a business trip in the first act, Rose talks with her sister, Daisy, played by Jacqueline Williams who takes her small role to the next level- one of the few who did. It gradually becomes clear that Daisy, the mother of Jasmine, and Rose could easily switch daughters and be perfectly happy, but as they are, there are not-so-slight disputes in the family. Rose, the naturally nourishing type, comforts Jasmine in her times of trouble and offers aid to Daisy, but she only gives Iris a pat on the back in her time of need. Iris, becoming the New York writer she has always dreamed of, forgets about the comforts of home along with the conflicts. Viewers also watch as Jasmine’s life spirals out of control.
The events that take place throughout the play are realistic events, but all together, there are so many details that, along with some dramatic screaming and strong mixtures of different feelings, make the performance difficult to follow at times. Unlike other plays recently showed at The Goodman, there is no happy-go-lucky, fake smile, “hey, just look on the bright side” twist to the events portrayed. Jefferson A. Russell plays both Ray Earl from “Jar Fly” and Frank from “Ghoststory.” Without giving anything more away, both characters are important, but their importance is of slightly different aspects. Perhaps the overall theme was just not this Young Critic’s cup of tea, but the general feeling of eerie confusion cropped up a few times.
Straying away from the actual play and to the scenery, there was clearly much more consideration put into the props than the plot. The backdrop for all three plays is Rose’s house, which becomes modernized as time progresses with only slight variations made. Disco-ready bell-bottoms and afros take over the 1978 fashion of “Jar Fly” and are exchanged for the typical denim and more subtle attire of the other two acts. “Rain” contains real rain on the stage, along with some digging into the ground and pulling up authentic dirt to plant a tree. There is difficulty deciding whether or not the distraction from the play and to the effects was from an overdone set or simply a disinterest in what was actually happening on stage. A thumbs up goes out to Todd Rosenthal for his set design and Karen Perry for her costumes that create a production, in their own departments, as real as they could get. Director Ethan McSweeny and actors should take pointers from Rosenthal and Perry to improve their own areas.