Saturday, March 12, 2022

Theater Review - The Big Blue River - Mariah Theatre - Shockingly Hopeful - 4.5 stars

Not only am I grateful I went to see Patrick Coyle’s new play The Big Blue River, the inaugural offering of his new Mariah Theatre Company, I’m also very glad I stayed for the audience talkback afterward (which is not a sentiment often expressed about audience talkbacks after a show).  

“I think writing’s kept me alive.”

One of the audience members said they found it “shockingly hopeful,” which is a very apt description of this unusual script.  They further elaborated that, given the subject matter, they were prepared for it to end up being very dark, “and I don’t mind dark, I’m Irish.”  (Knowing laughter rippled through several segments of the audience.) “But by intermission, I knew all the characters were going to be all right.  They all seemed to be doing the right things to come out on the other side of what they were going through - they were talking, they were writing, they were expressing themselves through art.”  And I found that fascinating because I had the exact opposite experience.  

“I blamed myself. It’s what we do, the people that are left behind.”

I went into intermission for The Big Blue River having no idea where the plot was going or how it was going to end (and that’s not a bad thing, I love that, it happens so rarely anymore), and I was not sure that anyone was going to be all right.  It turns out I needn’t have been as worried as I was, and that other audience member had the correct instinct to suspect that things were somehow going to be OK, as improbable as it might seem.  And that’s not a spoiler.  Because everyone in this play is at least two or three different people, and any one of them could take a wrong turn and one of their other personas could still pull things together.

“Freud said that the Irish are impervious to therapy.”

Our main character is Laura Grace (Gini Adams), a therapist who probably shouldn’t be a therapist.  We learn later that she probably went into the profession for the wrong reasons.  Though she may have had a good run for a couple of decades in this job, she’s not feeling like she’s doing herself or her patients much good lately.  Also, her impending 50th birthday is weighing on her like a ton of bricks. (Again, as we’ll discover later, that birthday has additional significance in her personal history. Laura is a woman of many secrets.)  

“I say the same thing over and over, like a zombie therapist.”

Just that little bit there about the birthday is an example of the craftsmanship going on in Coyle’s script.  There are no wasted details.  Everything pays off, either in the moment or later when you aren’t expecting it, often both.  Even the opening lines of the play, where Laura is recording flippant case notes about family therapy with a mother and daughter, has echoes in the closing moments.  The Big Blue River is a meaty play with a lot of humor and heartache that it seems the actors all had a great time digging into.  The audience is also along for the ride.

“I’m unfinished.  So are you.”
“We all are.”

Laura doesn’t have much of a life.  We only see her in her office, and at a local wine bar where she drinks (a lot) while typing a screenplay of her own within the play we’re watching.  Laura has become more than a bit obsessed with a client, Frank Dolan (Jim Cunningham), who just walked off his job one day and jumped in the big blue river of the title to finally see what was around the bend which he’d never thought to explore before.  After losing his job, he then pretended to go to work for three months rather than tell his wife.  Frank’s therapy is reluctant and legally required so the push and pull between him and Laura isn’t your usual therapist/client relationship.  Laura starts imagining scenarios in her screenplay in which she is Frank’s wife.  She also imagines the daughter they have together, named Teagan (Sulia Rose Altenberg).  We see scenes of this life she creates on her laptop come to life onstage in an imaginary kitchen. The sympathetic waiter Donald (Derek Long) at the wine bar becomes her often enthusiastic audience, reading the pages she shares with him.

“So you prefer the company of women.  That just means you have taste.”
“I like women.  I loved Phillip.”

All of this is wildly unprofessional and a violation of patient privacy but Laura just can’t help herself.  She doesn’t have a life so she’s creating one - and she’s starting to get the two very messed up in her head.  In the imaginary life, Laura’s character starts having an affair with a younger man named Tanner (Matt Wall), inspired by the most mundane of encounters with one of Donald’s fellow waiters at the bar.  The alcohol isn’t helping.  Neither are her own unresolved personal issues.  It’s quite a stew, and of course inevitably the stew boils over.

“People crack.  Life’s hard.”

Patrick Coyle, directing his own script, has assembled a solid cast who all deliver on a tricky, and unexpectedly very funny, bit of storytelling.  The lines between fantasy and reality in The Big Blue River are really murky.  That’s not a bad thing, and it appears to be a very deliberate strategy on the part of the production.  The reality of Laura’s imagined life with Frank isn’t undercut by the design.  The set designed by Vanessa Miles for the kitchen isn’t any less real than Laura’s therapy office.  The costumes designed by Lin Mathison are just as everyday normal on the bodies of the Dolan family in Laura’s screenplay as they are when Frank visits Laura’s office for a therapy appointment.  The lighting designed by Jeff Sherman, and the props he’s assembled for all the locations in the play, are just as grounded in reality both in and out of Laura’s head.  

“There were no mistakes made in the creation of you.”

The only signifiers that we’re moving from reality to fantasy and back again are some changes in the landscape of Katherine Horowitz’s sound design, Russel Holsapple’s music, and the change in projections on a screen that fills the space between the office in the real world and the kitchen in the fake one.  Projections reinforce the photographic reality of our world, and then dissolve into surreal black and white paintings approximately reality when we dip into Laura’s screenplay.  But again, I think we’re supposed to be a little disoriented and confused - because Laura is.  

“She says she wants it to just be us - monotonous.”
“That, too.”

A few times we go completely off the deep-end, into a sitcom reality complete with laugh track, or a Pirandello style discussion between the characters of Laura’s screenplay outside of their plot, or a moody black and white film (shot by cinematographer Greg Stiever), even an onstage parody of arthouse films full of long silences and meaningful looks.  But most of the time, Laura’s imagined world is unnervingly real.  

“No one ever seems to get better.”

And it only gets weirder when you sit and think about it later.  For instance, almost none of what we learn about Frank in the play, outside of his therapy sessions, is real - he spends the bulk of the play being presented to us in the context of Laura’s imagined life with him.  And the daughter Teagan?  Doesn’t exist at all.  We never see her in real life.  She is mentioned but never realized.  How’s that for an acting challenge?  Yes, you’re a character, Sulia, but you’re not a real person in this play.

“Your secrets are safe with me.  I have many.”

The script’s relationship to queerness is a strange one, in both levels of reality.  While I’m happy to see the inclusion of characters that allow the play to escape being completely heteronormative, the way the play utilizes them is odd.  There’s even a scene in the play that calls Donald out for a being a cliche, the sassy gay friend, who moonlights as a drag queen with an act inspired by Madonna’s “Like A Virgin” (from, gulp, almost 40 years ago now - I grew up with that song).  There’s also a lot of real estate in the play, both in the real world and the unreal one, devoted to justifying how Frank was spotted in a drag bar wearing an earring but we swear, really and truly, he’s not gay.  The imaginary daughter Teagan has an also imaginary but unseen transgender male partner who remains completely offstage even in the fake reality.  And Frank tells Teagan a (completely imaginary?) story about a childhood friend who was gay and hung himself.   Don’t get me wrong, the heterosexuals in this play are pretty messed up and have suicidal tendencies (and histories), too.  But it’s hard to know what to do with that assortment of representation.  It’s a bit too “self-loathing Tennessee Williams” for my taste.  However, it’s also not the point or the main focus of the play, so it’s a side issue, even though it’s one to which the play keeps returning.

“Please tell me you haven’t blamed yourself for this all these years.”
“Not all the years.”

The Big Blue River is about the power and the danger of imagination, the salvation and the treacherousness of storytelling, and the seductive strategy of solving other people’s problems rather than facing your own.  It’s alternately hilarious and serious, and often quite moving (even if some of the things tugging at your heart strings are a couple of extra levels removed from reality than a play would normally be).  

“I get so lost in my project it scares me.”

Does Laura deserve a happy ending?  Maybe not.  But that’s probably why her last name is Grace.  If anyone needs a little unearned forgiveness, it’s Laura. (Probably best not to get me started on the level of forgiveness I think the rest of us could use right now.)

“Why are we here?”
“To thank her, for existing.”

Mariah Theatre Company’s world premiere production of The Big Blue River runs through March 27, 2022 at the North Garden Theater (929 Seventh Street West in St. Paul, MN).  Be aware, all showtimes are at 7pm (not 7:30 or 8).  

The venue’s policy is that all attendees are vaccinated against COVID-19, but they don’t have anyone checking that - they just ask for cooperation in the online ticketing process and leave it at that.  Half the audience I attended with wasn’t masked (I still do mask up, but that’s partly because one of my jobs is working at a theater that was shut down for a year and has had to cancel performances and whole productions since because of the virus so, I’m trying to mitigate risk to myself and others - while dealing with hundreds of strangers every day.  Your mileage may vary.)

That’s another way of saying, I don’t leave the house to see a lot of theater right now.  I chose to go see The Big Blue River.  You should, too.

4.5 stars - Very Highly Recommended

[Photo: Derek Long as Donald and Gini Adams as Laura in Patrick Coyle's "The Big Blue River." Photography by Keith Bridges]

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