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Review: 'The Trinity River Plays' at the Dallas Theater Center
by Jerome Weeks 30 Nov 2010

Consider this your wake-up call: It’s the last week for the world premiere of ‘The Trinity River Plays’ at the Dallas Theater Center – by Oak Cliff-native Regina Taylor. And KERA’s Jerome Weeks finally reviews it. It’s the holidays. He had major family gift negotiations. But hey, look: All seats for the rest of the run are $20. Read the review to find out how to get them.


Karen Aldridge in Jar Fly, the first of The Trinity River Plays at the Dallas Theater Center

The Trinity River Plays, making their world premiere at the Dallas Theater Center, are a case of too much, too soon.

There’s too much here: Together, the very good and the not-very-good run well over three hours, and they needn’t.  But it seems the plays were given a full, mainstage production too soon in their development. Producing new works is more than commendable: It’s a discovery, it’s necessary for the art, it’s one way a theater makes a real name for itself.

Judging from press reports, though, this attempted epic is not what the Dallas Theater Center and playwright Regina Taylor had initially bargained for. Taylor started with one play — and ended up writing three. She should have opted for a workshop production or a staging of just one part. Then she might have had the time (and the feedback) to craft this into something more shapely, less muddy with symbols and themes and portentous talk. Perhaps by the time The Trinity River Plays get staged at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre (it’s a co-production between the DTC and the Goodman, where Taylor is an artistic associate), the necessary repairs will be done.

Here’s hoping they are — because Dallas, even North Texas in general, doesn’t have many good plays or good novels written about it, and certainly not from an African-American perspective.  We could use ’em — they’d give us more reflections on ourselves, a deeper, more thoughtful understanding. Or at least a different understanding, something other than oil barons, the ‘Boys and the Bushes.

Yet other than Blind Lemon Blues nine years ago, I can’t remember the last Dallas-themed, Dallas-based play that got such a full-bore production as Trinity does, complete with a fine cast. They’re that rare.

In Trinity, we get another family with secrets (and weak communication skills). To underscore this, characters repeatedly shout at each other some variant of “You don’t know me!” or “You know nothing about it.” It’s the kind of domestic pathology that is pretty much the legacy of the realistic American drama — from Long Day’s Journey into Night to August: Osage County, both of which hover behind Trinity as models.

Taylor’s three one-acts follow a young would-be writer, Iris (Karen Aldridge), growing up in Oak Cliff. In Jar Fly, the first play, Iris’ mother Rose is off in San Antonio, taking a management course to improve her job prospects. So Iris, the good-girl-high-school-nerd, is staying with Aunt Daisy (Jacqueline Williams) and her bad-girl daughter, the fun-loving-pot-dealing-dancer-wannabe Jasmine (Christiana Clark). A Very Nasty Thing happens, and in part two, Rain, we begin to see its causes and consequences. It’s 17 years later, Iris — now a successful book author and editor — has just gotten divorced and returned home. Jasmine, meanwhile, is a drug-addicted mess, and Mama Rose (Penny Johnson Jerald) has been diagnosed with cancer. Recriminations and revelations ensue, and in Part 3, Ghost (story), Iris must deal with her grief — plus, the returns of both a high-school boyfriend and her ex-husband.

All of this is performed on designer Todd Rosenthal’s highly detailed, mid-century modern ranch house, both exterior and interior, complete with garden, tree and sky. (Coincidentally, Rosenthal won a Tony for Osage County‘s towering, three-story house set.) It’s a meticulous re-creation (as are Karen Perry’s period costumes) and emphasizes Taylor’s comfortable, sitcom-like humor. That’s not a criticism — Trinity starts off in an appealing manner, mixing comedy and sisterhood drama.

Home Not-So-Sweet Home: Karen Aldridge and Christiana Clark (front) with Jacqueline Williams (back)

I’ve summarized Trinity like this to show Taylor’s ambitions for a kind of multi-generational saga. It’s a saga, though, that’s still primarily about Iris: Iris as a good daughter who loses her (strong but omewhat distant, sexually closed-off) mother, Iris as an abuse victim who survives, Iris as an adult writer seeking her voice, Iris as a divorced woman looking for some sexual healing — basically, it’s about Iris’ character in almost all its aspects. If anything, that’s what  connects the plays: Who is Iris? What will Iris become — in her writing, her love life?

That makes for a rather fuzzy, shape-shifting central subject. Trinity feels like it’s coming to a resolution well before it ends. By the beginning of the third play, Iris is coming to terms with her grief and we can see her possibly using that loss for a new direction. That seems to be the story’s main arc. Then in come the boyfriend and ex-husband for a dramatic, crowd-pleasing confrontation that feels rather tacked-on — except that Iris must also come to terms with her romantic/sexual life, which is  tied up with her mother, with her writing, with her bad-girl cousin, etc., etc.

In all of this, Trinity is much like the first-time self-explorations that young dramatists often write (basically, “How I Got to Be the Way I Am”). In  interviews before Trinity opened, author Regina Taylor neatly sidestepped the issue of autobiography, saying Trinity is fiction, not fact. But she did say that her mother’s death ultimately inspired her to write Trinity.

So it’s not so much that’s there too much here — August: Osage County has even more complications in it. But they’re not well-connected. It’s almost impossible to summarize Trinity in fewer than three-four sentences. I suspect, though, that all of these storylines feel connected in Taylor’s heart and mind because of the kind of wholesale soul-searching a parent’s death often incites: Who am I and where am I headed — as daughter, wife, artist, cousin, lover?

But all of these issues are not necessarily connected as a drama. One could probably strip out, say, the ghost of Rose and do little damage to the play(s). Or, as I’ve noted, wrap up everything fairly soon into Act 3.

Of course, the counter-argument to the weaknesses I see in Trinity is that it’s not a drama, it’s three separate one-acts. I’m not convinced they are. Perhaps Rain might stand on its own. But the three one-act “structure” is indicative of Trinity‘s problems, not a solution to them. Taylor needs to take ownership of Trinity as one large drama and do the necessary pruning.  Or she needs to think Horton Foote and less Eugene O’Neill or Tracy Letts: Split them off completely, re-consider them as a full-scale play cycle with a wider focus than just Iris and make them not hew so close to a single character with a single dramatic arc.

Increasing the plays’  baggy feel is Taylor’s tendency to switch tones — from appealing, family-comedy dialogue to Poetic Meanings and Weighty Omens that clutter things. A play can certainly mix elements of comedy, melodrama and poetry. But here, in addition to the repeated cries that ‘You don’t know me,’ we get the life cycle of the cicada explained (and demonstrated). We get pointers about planting a garden, about seeds and water and the need to take root and how all this relates to mothers and daughters, to a writer’s artistry and her need to find her own voice. We get the Trinity River that keeps rolling along. We even get the moon.

Recall that in Long Day’s Journey, Eugene O’Neill provides the fog and the fog horn — and that’s pretty much it when it comes to Big Symbols. Taylor doesn’t let us figure out much on our own — because, I think, she’s still trying to explain things to herself.  This loose collection of images only underlines the play’s rambling nature.  It’s as if Taylor is trying to yoke these (supposedly separate) plays together with metaphors. Evidence of this: The return of the cicada imagery at the very end of Ghost (story) — which won’t have much resonance unless the audience has already seen Jar Fly.

Too bad that Trinity gets a premature staging because as mentioned above, it has a top-notch cast and a first-rate production. Kudos to director Ethan McSweeny for doing what he has with this material and these artists. I suspect rehearsals were as much about re-writing as rehearsing.

Most people seem to recall Penny Johnson Jerald from 24, but I much prefer remembering The Larry Sanders Show, and it’s a pleasure to see her here in a rare stage performance as the determined Mama Rose. Jacqueline Williams is a warm, funny delight as Daisy, the aunt whose solution to everything seems to be cooking (but who’s also willing to ignore an ugly problem in her own cupboard — a welcome bit of darkness Taylor adds to what could have been just an audience-pleasing character type). If there’s a criticism to be leveled against Karen Aldridge as Iris, it’s that she plays up the nerdy childishness too much at first. But then, she and the all-too-convincing Christiana Clark (as Jasmine) are the two actors who really must age and change over 17 years and, frankly, the bad girl is easier to play because the bad girl grew up too fast yet never becomes fully grown. She’s more or less the same, just stuck with tougher consequences.

Iris, on the other hand, matures, but Aldridge starts her too far back, almost as a caricature. And if it can be said that The Trinity River Plays are about any one thing, it’s about Iris growing up and trying to see her life honestly and whole — and all the difficulties (and advantages) that entails.

As for the final performances and the bargain tickets:

The Trinity River Plays closes Sunday, December 5.  You have the opportunity to see this world premiere for only $20 — for any seat in the house.  Visit www.dallastheatercenter.org to purchase tickets and use the promo code RIVER.