Review: ‘The River’ at Spooky Action Theater

Jez Butterworth’s The River does not yield itself to easy interpretations. Uncertainty flows through the story, jostling us repeatedly. Its questions about truth and morality are specific and seismic at the same time.

Under the sensitive direction of Rebecca Holderness, Spooky Action Theater’s new production of this 2012 play coaxes out its universal themes which Holderness and Dramaturg Fly Steffens tell us are firmly grounded in Celtic mythology. Yet the play speaks volumes even for those of us who aren’t knowledgeable about such ancient tales. Maintaining a keen focus on Butterworth’s enthralling characters, The River rivets us with both anticipation and dread as we behold the twists in this eerie story.

With Jeff Allin and Emma Jackson. Photo by Tony Hitchcock

The play opens with sounds of rushing water, and ushers us into the remote riverside cabin where a ruggedly handsome angler has taken his new girlfriend to fish during the ultra-dark new moon. Once inside his rural English man-cave, she would greatly prefer to watch the sunset and curl up with a book, but he convinces his guest to accompany him to fly-fish while the river runs thick with trout. En route to his favorite perch, she disappears. He panics but just as he calls the police to report her missing, she returns – or does she?

No proper names are given to the characters in the play; a nod to their collective nature. Jeffrey Allin as The Man embodies a loner who can appear removed but nonetheless nurses acute physical and intellectual hungers. He is often terse, but he quotes extravagantly from the poetry of Ted Hughes and a 3rd century Roman writer named Aelian. In one of Allin’s best moments, The Man tells an exquisitely detailed story about the first fish he ever caught.  I understood his tale as a metaphor for the passions and risks of life itself.

The Woman is the most vivid of Butterworth’s characters and Emma Jackson excels in this role. Bold and fresh, exhibiting both child-like wonder and an alternately needling and self-deprecating sense of humor, she challenges The Man’s honesty and intentions but reveals a deception of her own.  His tenderness towards her is palpable, and affecting.

Karen Novack as The Other Woman imbues her character with an earthiness and slow-burning passion that finally explodes, propelling the story towards its climax. I do wish, however, that the chemistry between her and The Man would have ignited more. Though her description of their love-making is magnificently written and delivered, the drama suffers a bit from their mismatch.

Vicki R. Davis’ set places us squarely in the action. Her cozy cabin is welcoming, well-worn and redolent of the generations of males who have escaped there. It is a lair and perhaps a prison, fomenting interactions of numbing sameness.

Gordon Nimmo-Smith’s sound design is subtle and superbly suited to the play.  We are convinced at key moments of the cabin’s proximity to the fast-flowing river. It adds to the vaguely menacing character of Butterworth’s drama, but it also, metaphorically, reminds us of the pumping force of life.

Whether you classify The River as an erotic memoir, a mythological cautionary tale, or simply a thriller, the play offers eloquent insights into the darkly romantic aspects of the human heart. There’s no doubt that the quality of his moral fiber will fuel many passionate post-performance discussions.

Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.

The River  plays through February 26, 2017, at Spooky Action Theater – 1810 16th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 248-0301, or purchase them online.

Magic Time! ‘The River’ at Spooky Action Theater by John Stoltenberg on DCMetroTheaterArts.


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