Searching for self and sanity in a garden of doubt

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Eric Y. Exit

Karen Aldridge (left) is Iris and Jacqueline Williams is Aunt Daisy in "The Trinity River Plays." 

Review: "The Trinity River Plays," by Regina Taylor
Goodman Theatre, Chicago

When you’re lost to the world, lost in your own heart, sometimes the place to find yourself is where you started. Back where truth, like family and the river, is eternal.

But it’s an ugly truth that abides with Iris, the aspiring young writer who flowers into a successful author in Regina Taylor’s three-part, long-arching “Trinity River Plays.” Iris, whom we first meet at age 17, goes to college, travels the world and into her mid-30s enjoys a burgeoning career as novelist and editor. Meanwhile, her marriage has failed. And one day, she’s back home in suburban Dallas to visit her mother Rose, cousin Jasmine and adored aunt, Daisy.

That’s when the box into which Iris has stuffed her specter begins to break down. As the truth leaks out, the girl become woman collapses under its awfulness, howling against the storm. Yet Iris still has her family and the constant river, and so the painful healing process begins.

This is Taylor’s 10th production at the Goodman Theatre, where she is a member of the Artistic Collective. She calls her lyrical, wryly funny and touching “Trinity River Plays” a triptych, and thus gives each act its own title: “Jarfly,” “Rain” and “Ghoststory.” Unlike, say, Tarell Alvin McCraney’s larger-scaled, three-part “Brother/Sister Plays,” which do stand separately, Taylor’s three-hour cycle really presents a unity. “Jarfly” – the title is a southern term for cicada – might work alone, though its very dark final implication becomes transfigured over the two remaining acts.

And where McCraney’s work extends across generations, Taylor’s play embraces just 18 years, from 1978 to 1996, starting on Iris’ 17th birthday. That’s the day her older, free-spirited cousin Jasmine gets her drunk on the girl’s first taste of liquor. And her uncle comes home to find her throwing up in the kitchen sink.

Which brings me to the other striking difference between “The Brother/Sister Plays” and “The Trinity River Plays.” McCraney’s story places a Southern black community in the oppressive world of The Man. Taylor’s family is black but as recognizably middle class as any family might be. Despite occasional references to what it was like in the old, harder days, it should be no stretch for anyone from any cultural background to grasp what’s driving these characters, what’s daunting them or the battles they wage with their loved ones and within themselves.

Much as one might admire the Goodman’s superb ensemble of actors, or the deft work of director Ethan McSweeny, it is designer Todd Rosenthal’s splendorous garden set that requires first praise. You walk into the theater and, wow, there it is, this grand, multicolored and beautifully manicured garden occupying the forward half of the stage, with the interior of a suburban home behind it. What you can’t yet know is that it’s a garden of metaphors.

Iris’ mother Rose is a gardener. But Iris, who has a strained relationship with her mom, doesn’t know a shovel from a hoe. No, the Iris we meet is an owlish dreamer with a writer’s flair. She perches on a low tree branch and muses on cicadas but hardly notices that extraordinary garden.

As Iris, Karen Aldridge makes a credible and harrowing progression from buttoned-up, naïve schoolgirl to a woman on the roiling seas of emotional disaster. For sheer virtuosity, however, Penny Johnson Jerald, as her mother, upstages everyone with her indelible impression of a cancer victim in final decline.

Jacqueline Williams’ Aunt Daisy is an irresistible blend of wisdom, drollery and maternal comfort. And Christiana Clark, as the self-destructive Jasmine, paints a sad portrait of a young woman seemingly determined to make her ruin complete.

The play’s key male roles, Iris’ uncle and her ex-husband, raise an intriguing psychological issue. Taylor has them conveniently, and economically, assigned to the same actor, here the adaptable and appealing Jefferson A. Russell. And thus Iris goes pillar to post, from a spectral uncle to a husband who in actuality resembles him and who doesn’t work out. Or are they getting back together?

That’s a psychiatrist’s sandbox. Can’t wait for the sequel.

Through Feb. 20. www.GoodmanTheatre.org. Call (312) 443-3800.