Shattering the Safety of Home
A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis
At: Richmond Triangle Players at the Robert B. Moss Theatre, 1300 Altamont Ave, RVA 23230
Performances: September 23 – October 10, 2021.
Ticket Prices: $30-35; $10 for Students.
Info: (804) 346-8113 or rtriangle.org. Richmond Triangle Theater has returned to full-capacity seating and requires proof of vaccine or recent negative PCR test results for entry. See the theater’s website for their COVID-19 precautions, digital programs, and more.
VINCENT RIVER, a two-character play by Philip Ridley, is both stunningly simple and amazingly convoluted. Jill Bari Steinberg and Keaton Hillman keep the audience enthralled for an hour and 45 minutes – with no intermission – as the story unfolds. It’s almost a theatrical form of clickbait. You couldn’t turn away even if you wanted to because you have to find out how the story ends and once you do you almost wish you had never stumbled across the announcement or whatever it was that drew you into this dark and sticky web of events. Yes, it’s that intense. For some, this story will bring back memories – or flashbacks – of The Laramie Project, produced by RTP in September 2018.
For starters, it’s prerequisite to read the advertisement or teasers for VINCENT RIVER or you might start out at a disadvantage. By intent, not much is revealed in the first scenes. The entire play takes place in the shabby apartment (well, they call it a flat, since the story takes place in East London) of Anita, a woman of apparently modest means with a long and troubled past. Her only child, Vincent River, was recently found murdered in an abandoned rail station and the newspapers had a field day composing sensational and scandalous headlines like, “Vincent River, Homosexual Victim.” Things got so bad Anita had to move from the flat she had shared with her son.
One rainy day there is a knock at Anita’s door and in stumbles Davey, a young man (I thought he initially said he was 17, but later announced he was 16) with an astonishing and painful story to tell – if only he could bring himself to speak. We know something is up because Davey has been stalking Anita for some time, and when he finally gets up the nerve to approach her, he appears reluctant to talk. It seems that Davey was the one who found Vincent’s body. But, of course, there’s more.
After much fiery deliberation the two strangers, Vincent’s mother Anita and young Davey, make a pact to tell each other all they know about Davey, in an attempt to fill in the gaps surrounding his mysterious murder. Given the seedy location and the gory details, it’s pretty obvious this was a homophobic hate crime, but why, exactly is Davey here, and what does Vincent’s death matter to him – those are the burning questions. The answers elicit shock, anger, grief, anger, disbelief, and anger. But you’ll have to go see the play to find out all the details.
At one point in his retelling, Davey tells a story about riding on a roller coaster with his mother as a youth. The roller coaster is an apt metaphor for the way this this dramatic narrative unfolds, just as the lost innocence of youth implants suggestions that make it possible to feel empathy for Davey even as we condemn his actions. Initially, I found Davey’s demeanor and reluctance to talk annoying and I thought some of facial expressions were overly exaggerated, but as the story unfolds he settled into a rhythm that seduced his audience and carried us along with him to the dark and tangled end.
Gradually, the balance of power shifts from Anita to Davey. It’s fascinating to follow this transfer, that is aided and abetted by a variety of addictive agents, including booze, pills, marijuana, sex, and even reflexology, but mainly by Davey’s words. Much of the story is told as a lengthy and emotional monologue by Davey (something Hillman has proven himself adept at in more than one show) as Anita sits quietly, allowing every imaginable emotion to pass over her face and through her posture. The two actors must be physically and emotionally exhausted after each performance of VINCENT RIVER.
All of this – the story, the emotions – is supported by Candace Hudert’s sound design which includes subtle undertones of music so soft they are mere suggestions, and a soundscape of rain that is every bit as affective in guiding the audience’s emotions as the musical cues in classic horror films,
Director Vinnie Gonzalez has done his job with transparency and gentleness even though much of the language is explosive, the actions harsh, and the consequences disastrous. Moments of humor – as when Anita raises the wide blinds to expose a tiny window – take the edge off and give the audience a chance to breathe. Gonzalez’s set, built with angled walls and recessed a bit deeper than most sets at RTP, is filled with shabby furniture, peeling paint, unintentionally exposed brick, and dangling crown molding. A floor made of salvaged wooden boards provides a surprisingly sturdy foundation for the chaos that inhabits the room. Cigarette and marijuana smoke (theatrical, of course) waft through the air and there’s also plenty of booze and pills – even though the flat’s water has been shut off.
Costume designer Margarette Joyner has arrayed Steinberg in a jumble of bright colors, including disparately patterned socks and shoes and animal print bell bottoms while Hillman wears a conservative suit, dress shoes, a white button down shirt and tie. Both characters are given colorful language as well. Speaking of language, kudos to dialect designer Erica Hughes for coaching Steinberg and Hillman in what sounded to my ear like authentic British accents. VINCENT RIVER reminds us to be careful what we ask for.
Written by Philip Ridley
Directed by Vinnie Gonzalez
Jill Bari Steinberg as Anita
Keaton Hillman as Davey
Scenic Design by Vinnie Gonzalez
Costume Design by Margarette Joyner
Lighting Design by Austin Harber
Sound Design by Candace Hudert
Intimacy Direction by Raja Benz
Dialect Design by Erica Hughes
Hair and Make Up Design by Luke Newsome
Properties Design by Tom Moehring
Projection Design by Aisthesis Productions and Undefined Media LLC
Production Stage Manager: Lauren Langston
Photo Credits: John MacLellan
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