Saturday, February 12, 2011

"The Trinity River Plays" and Chicago's Goodman Theater

I wish my readers could visit me in Chicago.  I would love to take you on an exploration of the neighborhoods and history, the beauty of the lakefront and the variety of cultural experience. To dine on great food served anywhere from sophisticated open-air courtyards to a real library with a working fireplace.  To ride the Chicago river and and marvel at the design and the architecture. To show it to you through my eyes, and to discover with you all that's unique, as I make it my mission this summer to take charge of this city.

Chicago is proud of its relatively new and vastly improved Theater District. Old movie palaces like the Oriental and the Chicago Theaters have become enormously popular venues for the latest live theatrical productions.

The Goodman Theater , a Tony-winning Regional Theater, has been a Chicago institution since 1925, when it was then the theater arm of the Art
Institute.  The founders of the theater, Erna and William Goodman, made a legacy of $250,000 to the Art Institute in honor of their son, Kenneth Sawyer Goodman, a playwright who died in the 1918 flu epidemic at age 35.

In its long and sometimes turbulent history, the Goodman encompassed both the theater and a the Goodman School of Drama, among whose graduates are artists such as Karl Malden, Sam Wanamaker, Geraldine Page, Shelley Berman, Harvey Korman, Jose Quintero, Linda Hunt, and Joe Mantegna.

The Drama School has since been acquired by DePaul University, and the Theater itself has been independent from the Art Institute since 1976, so that it can pursue independent fundraising.

Last week, I had the pleasure of making my first visit to the Goodman. Thanks to a Christmas surprise from Mark, we are now season subscribers.  Shockingly late, I admit, but an exciting moment, trying as I am to broaden a creative point of view for my benefit and that of my readers.

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I can't think of a better, more intimate environment for the production of "The Trinity River Plays", my maiden voyage to the Goodman Theater.

Playwright Regina Taylor wrote this trio of one-act plays (better described as an epic 3-act play) after losing her mother to cancer.

The play, however, is neither too solemn nor religious in the least.  It is lively and powerful, and it strives to find a spiritual center. The titles of the three plays (or acts), "Jar Fly", "Rain", and "Ghost Story", evoke the father, son and holy ghost of the trinity, and act as a motif to hold the stories together. The Trinity River is a mentioned but unseen place that surrounds the household of a group of black women who are the subject of the play. 

Iris, the central character, celebrates her 17th birthday in the first act. It is 1976, as Iris yearns to become a writer, sharing with us her essay on the locust, a creature that emerges every 17 years.  This segment introduces us the characters that are Iris' world: her doting aunt, her drug-addicted and charismatic cousin, her mother in mention only, the athletic boy she fancies, and her uncle, who perpetrates a crisis that Iris must come to terms with through the rest of the play. 

The next act finds Iris 17 years later, successful as an editor but failing in her marriage.Her mother occupies the stage in the beginning stages of terminal illness.  During this act there is a significant time change in which Iris must accept her mother's decline and seek her advice in dealing with the horrible secret that still haunts her. 

Act three occurs one year later.  It is the day of Iris' mother's funeral, and as Iris tries to make amends with her estranged husband, and resolve her conflicts with her aunt and cousin, her mother re-appears in ghostly fashion, and Iris joins her in the family garden to seek advice and love, and finally let go.

The play is helped in a big way by the elaborate and welcoming stage setting, a simple house with large kitchen and patio and garden with a big tree and real rain, and a stunning painted backdrop of clouds over all of it.  I was drawn in by this setting, felt that I could move around and occupy it. With its garish 1970's decor, rooms and doors at various depths and levels, and excellent lighting conveying a natural feeling of sunlight and moonlight, the set was as much a participant in the action as the actors.

Each performer meets the demands of his/her roles beautifully, bringing much-welcomed humor and intensity to the cries of pain and words of healing in Taylor's dialogue.  Karen Aldridge's Iris must carry the entire show, and is convincing through her various stages of life and attractiveness.  At the end of Act Two, when she unleashes a primal howl at the memory of her abuse, she chills the house. Christina Clark deserves special praise as the cousin, a role that needs a brashness of tone and an ingratiating physicality which she pulls off beautifully as she steals the show.  As the aunt, Penny Johnson Jerald provides warmth and humor in a role that in some odd way reminded me of that of the mother in "Precious", ignoring the signs of trouble that explode later.  Samuel Ray Gates, Jefferson A. Russell, and Jacqueline Williams round out a talented cast.

The show might have benefited from tighter editing; it goes on about 20 minutes longer than needed. The middle of the Second act, and portions of Act three involving a basketball challenge between the two men, offer little insight or emotional impact.

On the other hand, The Goodman should be proud to have offered this original and unforgettable experience.  And oh, that set...


  1. Holy moley that set looks amazing! I always love hearing about great new theatre. Maybe it'll head to Broadway? Family dramas are guaranteed to reel me in. I'm quite jealous, Tom, quite jealous indeed.

  2. It's a fine and interesting play; maybe you'll have a chance to see it.... Why don't you plan a trip to Chicago soon? The Goodman's next offering is the Tony-winning "Gods of Carnage", sort of a domestic "comedy". We'd love to have you visit us!