Production of 'River' Drowns in Pool

Well-intentioned but clumsy student script sinks this otherwise solid production

The Athena Theater Company’s production of The River, which ran in the Adams Pool Theater this weekend, benefited from the efforts of a largely solid cast and crew, and was clearly motivated by the best of intentions (it called itself an involved treatment of “language and female embodiment”). Unfortunately, despite the production’s strengths, its lamentable script, written by Julia H. Fawcett ’04, scuttled the evening’s dramatic potential.

First, though, the cast and crew: the best performance in the three-person cast was given by Andrea D. Leahy ’05 as Irene, an aging mother. Irene is on rough terms with her daughter, has recently been abandoned by her husband, and is about to lose her house to the floodwaters of an overflowing river. Leahy gave a kind of grandeur to Irene’s dignified refusal to submit to adversity.

Miranda Featherstone ’06, as Irene’s daughter Mary, emoted clumsily and excessively, and her presumable efforts to seem adolescent and stressed resulted in an acting style that came off as diffident. In a minor role, Henry I. Lichtblau ’07 did a good job as Mary’s cardboard-masculine boyfriend Peter; his comic timing wasn’t bad, given the material, and his gestures jived well with his lines. The set, designed by Laura P. Perry ’04, was well-conceived and professionally executed. The play’s many bits of soundwork (lots of Radiohead, among other songs, as well as a gurgling water sound effect that wreaked havoc on my companion’s bladder) were likewise on target.

But what I ended up taking from The River, more than anything else, was the mediocrity of its script. Fawcett is evidently extremely talented, but she needed the assistance of an aggressive editor. She created many moments of legitimately poetic language in this play, but those lines were overshadowed by torturous clunkers like “I regret my earlobes”—lines of dialogue that the cast somehow managed to deliver with straight faces.

Fawcett’s script tended to explicitly lay out its themes and then left them out to dry like deli fixings. “My body has too long been a metaphor,” lamented one character; at another point, a monologue alluded to the “volumes and volumes written by dead white men” to which The River sets itself in opposition.

Although the ideas animating these kinds of thoughts were no doubt praiseworthy, Fawcett hammered them home in an almost unrelentingly preachy way, interspersing them among dialogue that seemed, on occasion, to strive for naturalism and psychological poignancy. Sadly, even the play’s handful of jokes fell flat; most notably, at the end of a lengthy double-entendre monologue punning on baking terms with sexual allusions, the punchline was something to the effect of “Oh, I always love baking cakes.” There is no subtlety in The River.

Some might also find fault with The River as an ideological statement. The play found evocative power in its regular mentions of “Ophelia, who died because she lacked a vocabulary” and of Virginia Woolf’s suicide. Those references, however, combined with the play’s final image—a woman, satiated by a man, privately reveling in her own unclothed body—to present a worldview that would have seemed a bit naive even before midcentury articulations of feminism, and which verges on being downright retrograde now.

One could probably also deem the ending, in which Mary loses her virginity just as her mother commits suicide, as being almost tasteless in its unsubtlety; in this ending, as throughout the evening, The River proved itself more successful in deploying cliches than in mustering dramatic credibility.

—Crimson Arts critic Patrick D. Blanchfield can be reached at blanchf@fas.harvard.edu.