The Trinity River Plays Review - Riveting and Thought Provoking

Iris (Karen Aldridge), Daisy (Jacqueline Williams), Ray Earl (Jefferson A Russell) and Jasmine (Christiana Clark) prepare for their morning breakfast. Photo by Brandon Thibodeaux.

Boy oh boy, was this a riveting, thought provoking play! A trilogy of three acts following the transformation of one woman over time, Goodman Theatre’s The Trinity River Plays, directed by Ethan McSweeney, is a must see! This was the first time I ever saw a Regina Taylor play, and I was highly impressed by the deep issues she tackles and her ability to write on themes that have meaning to all of us---moments of monumental consequence, family, relationships, and the transformation of ourselves. If I had to sum the message of this play, it would be as Regina stated in an interview: “the moments of life that threaten to uproot us---these moments of uncertainty can be points of growth.”

The Trinity River Plays is a story about Irene ( Karen Aldridge), a 17 year old girl who loses her innocence when she is raped by her uncle on her birthday. The trilogy explores the emotional aftermath of that moment 17 years earlier and explores how Irene deals with it, and how she simultaneously avoids dealing with it.

Iris (Karen Aldridge) reads some of her writing on her 17th birthday. Photo by Eric Y. Exit.

Though the play lasted nearly 3 hours and 15 minutes, there wasn’t one moment that I zoned out, which is quite a feat! The play’s abundant metaphors helped me more easily follow the path of Irene’s transformation. The first trilogy, Jar Fly, which recognizes that the cicada (jar fly) transforms itself in its 17th year. At Irene’s 17th birthday, she undergoes a massive transformation---unwillingly losing her innocence, effectually tarnishing her character and transforming her into a more angry, vigilant, and cynical person. The second trilogy, Rain, culminates in a powerful, downpour of rain in which previous moments of stasis are suddenly reawakened and shaken up. The sudden tumultuous storm signifies the emotional outpouring Irene finally allows for herself, allowing the thunder in her heart to rage and roar and for her family to be subject to that uproar. In the final trilogy, Ghoststory, while Irene is still in her 34th year, she is finally forced to face her past, specifically the men in her past-Jack and Frank, and she is finally able to deal with her past and to justify it, in order to take a step forward.

Jasmine (Christiana Clark) and Daisy (Jacqueline Williams) hold on to Iris (Karen Aldridge) as she succombs to her feelings. Photo by Eric Y. Exit.

What makes this play so dynamic and real is the way in which each character responds to the same situation in very different yet personal ways. Irene (Aldridge), a shyer, more mellow character responds to the trauma by repressing her feelings and moving through life as if unfazed. By the second act, Rain, Irene at age 34 is not all that different from Irene at age 17, though it is clear there are deep secrets brewing within her head. She returns to her old home in Dallas, which reawakens in her the desire for love and reconnection with her mother and aunt. She seemingly seeks their comfort in order to heal the internal bruise she has not been able to get rid of all these years. The manifestations of her needs, however, are inconspicuous –she appears fine on the outside but aches inside. Jasmine ( Christiana Clark), on the other hand, already a much stronger, bolder, more erratic character from the beginning, responds to the traumatic experiences that she has herself experienced and that she has watched Irene experience by completely submitting herself to the situation and drowning herself in it. Handling the abuse in an almost opposite fashion to Irene, she turns to alcohol and drugs. Jasmine boldly manifests her inner turmoil by showing us on the outside how her abusive experience has taken her asunder and ultimately tarnished her.

Jasmine (Christiana Clark) and Iris (Karen Aldridge) find a moment of understanding between the two of them. Photo by Eric Y. Exit.

Within these conflicting responses by Irene and Jasmine is the understanding that their respective mothers played a major role in how each responded to their circumstances. Jasmine’s mother, Daisy ( Jacqueline Williams) is a much more rambunctious, fun-loving character, and more a pushover than Irene’s mother, Rose. Daisy is humorous and loud and doesn’t seem to be the emotional type---she appears less available to serious conversations. As such, Jasmine never fully connects with her mother; she is unable to freely share with her mother what is going on inside her head. The two thus form a rocky relationship, one in which neither truly understands the internal processes going on inside one another's head. Rose ( Penny Johnson Jerald), Irene's mother, on the other hand, is stringent and straighter-laced, an overall grave person, likely accounting for the more mellow, serious aura that Irene takes on. It is perhaps because of the similar traits each takes on from their mothers, that neither Irene nor Jasmine are able to easily reveal their inner emotional turmoil to their mothers. Instead, and quite interestingly, they end up opening up and sharing more with their aunts. We see that the judgment and pressure a mother places on her daughter can prevent the daughter from revealing the truth. This can result in stifling and minimizing an experience, as Irene does, or acting out and uncontrollably expressing an experience, as Jasmine does. All four actors played the mother-daughter relationships phenomenally, manifesting similar traits when appropriate and thus giving ground for their relationships to sincerely flourish at some times and to weaken at others.

Iris (Karen Aldridge) tries to hold on to her mother Rose (Penny Johnson Jerald) for as long as possible. Photo by Eric Y. Exit.

In addition to shedding light on the way in which relationships are shaped and formed, The Trinity River Plays also awakened within me my own very personal relationship with my mother. I could so clearly see through the play the carryover in personality from mother to daughter, that I was impelled to think of my own relationship with my mother, and the quirky traits I have taken from her. I was reminded of how formidable my mother was in creating my own rambunctious, silly self and how this has allowed me to connect to her in very particular ways, usually those of the more fun-loving, less serious nature. In watching the play, I began to also think back on on those things that I choose not to disclose to my mother, and realized that like Irene, I keep those things secret often because they go against my mother’s expectations and desires for me. Ultimately, I appreciated the way the play was able to take me on the difficult and life-changing journey of another woman while simultaneously taking me on an emotional journey through my own life. Through the play I was able to think deeply about the way my own relationships have shaped me and to see some of my own self in Irene and Jasmine.

Jasmine ( Christina Clark) is a delight to watch. In Jar Fly, she is an upbeat, sexual 19 year old with few moral hindrances and just looking to have fun in life. While the transformitive process is not really focused on her (but rather Irene), her slight transformation by River is incredibly depressing, yet heartfelt, and completely believable. She naturally becomes a lost, out-of-control alcoholic/drug addict. She follows the inherent trajectory of the character she developed in Jar Fly, but exaggerates it a bit to account for the emotional storm she has gone through at age 19.

Jasmine (Christiana Clark) dreams of moving to New York City and becoming a famous dancer/choreographer. Photo by Eric Y. Exit

While Irene ( Karen Aldridge) goes through a larger transformitive process of growth and renewal compared to Jasmine as dictated by the script, it is harder to really pinpoint the trajectory her character takes because she so often maintains her mellowness and soft-spoken character. Her emotional outbreaks are erratic and follow no clear line of progression. While I found it harder for me to connect to her emotional trajectory because my own responses to tragedy are often more exaggerated and big, Irene played her character authentically and allowed herself to naturally respond to her life circumstances, keeping in good faith the shy and awkward character she established from the beginning.

Iris (Karen Aldridge) gets a lesson in beauty from her cousin Jasmine (Christiana Clark). Photo by Eric Y. Exit.

My only criticism of the play is targeted at the writing of the third act. The inclusion of the men into the story toward the end seemed inconsequential to the overall story line. While I understand they were there to convey the catharsis Irene goes through and the way in which she is able to resolve her long-standing inner conflict with what happened to her at age 17, I found the men’s presence to be distracting and unnecessary. Irene finally comes to terms with herself in the end when she reveals to Frank what happened to her at age 17, and in doing so, she is finally able to surrender herself to the forces of love. However, because the play was targeted so much on the transformitive processes and relationships of the four women, I found Irene could have reached her state of renewal without actually having Frank and Jack on stage. Moreover, the sitcom-like nature of the male-centric scenes in the third act ultimately created an overly comical overtone to a generally serious play.

Regina Taylor is a deep and explorative  playwright, and Ethan McSweeny’s execution of her story does her great justice. The tragic circumstance that is part of the larger trilogy allowed for the actors to display monumental moments of transformation, and the actors immersed themselves in that process with great integrity. Ultimately, the play is able to touch the heart because the journey the women in the play go through resonates painstakingly well with the various journeys we as humans go through.

The Trinity River Plays- Goodman Theatre's Albert Theatre

170 North Dearborn
Chicago, IL 60601
(312) 443-3800


January 15- February 20

Photos by Brandon Thibodeaux and Eric Y. Exit

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