By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Except for the title and some dropped-in references to Parkland Hospital, Neiman Marcus and the long-gone H.L. Green downtown five-and-dime, the setting of The Trinity River Plays feels as geographically generic as the towns do in daytime soaps. So scant is the sense of Dallas-ness in Regina Taylor's new trilogy that, with some editing, the pieces could easily be transposed to Atlanta or Akron or Anywhere, USA.
It's surprising how nebulously these plays depict Dallas and more specifically our leafy nabe over the river, Oak Cliff. In their world premiere in Dallas Theater Center's production at the Wyly Theatre, the three plays—grouped together in a three-and-a-half-hour marathon directed by Ethan McSweeny, but hardly viable enough to be performed separately—tell some of Taylor's own life story. Like Iris, the main character we first see on her 17th birthday in the opening play called Jar Fly, Taylor grew up in Oak Cliff, graduated from Pinkston High School and went on to SMU.
Taylor became an award-winning TV actress (I'll Fly Away, The Unit) and playwright (the musical Crowns, and an updated adaptation of Chekhov's Seagull called Drowning Crow). In the trilogy, Iris, portrayed by Chicago actress Karen Aldridge, starts out as a smart, gawky kid with bug-eye glasses and puff-ball pigtails, scribbling in her journal and mooning over a schoolboy jock named Jack (Samuel Ray Gates). She's 34 in the second and third plays, Rain and Ghost(story), having grown into a successful but emotionally constricted professional writer with a failed marriage and tenuous ties to family back home.
If there's a connecting theme in The Trinity River Plays, and it's not all that easy to pin one down, it could be the concept of home. Certainly DTC has gone to great lengths to build one for Iris and her kin in this production. Scenic designer Todd Rosenthal, who seems to have been strongly influenced by the architecture of The Brady Bunch, has created a hyper-realistic mid-century middle-class ranch-style house on the Wyly stage. The wide-angled roof rises over a foyer, sunken living room and working kitchen. There's a fenced-in backyard garden planted with grass and flowers. A towering pecan tree shades the patio next to a basketball hoop. Darkening clouds hang above it all.
It looks so real you almost itch from the chiggers. It's summertime in Jar Fly and the rhythmic wheeze of cicadas comes up. The insects, emerging in 17-year cycles, serve as metaphor for how young Iris feels. She reads aloud from a story she's writing called "My First Cicada," but really it's all about her, buzzing to get out in the world and away from her cold, controlling mother, Rose (played by Penny Johnson Jerald, unseen until the second play). Dad, as they say on the talk shows, is "not in the picture." The three men in Iris' life—Uncle Ray Earl (Jefferson A. Russell), teenage chum Jack and ex-husband Frank (Russell again)—are written as creepily predatory or simply too perfect to be true. Jack becomes an NBA star. The husband is a brilliant college prof. Both are in love with Iris at the end.
The four women are as un-nuanced as the men. Iris' Aunt Daisy (Jacqueline Williams) is the warm and sassy opposite of snappish Rose. Cousin Jasmine (Christiana Clark, the standout in this cast of all out-of-town imports) is two years older than Iris, and a high-spirited high-school dropout whose dreams of being a professional choreographer are drained by drug addiction and prostitution. They run hot and cold, good or bad, these characters. The most interesting is the sizzling Jasmine, whose story is so much more compelling than what we get of Iris and the others that we're sorry when she's not onstage. Iris, immensely likable as a teenager at the beginning, turns brittle and neurotic when she returns home in her 30s to care for the ailing Rose in the middle play.
Yes, that tired cliche: Busy daughter forced to care for and gradually better understand and forgive her dying mother, and in turn better understand herself. Almost everything these characters say and do you've heard and seen done before, and better. Rose and Iris speak reams of dialogue crossways mothers and daughters have shared in old sob-sister flicks from the 1950s, All My Children episodes from the 1970s or innumerable hours of current Lifetime movies. Their lines come out in the syntax of Hallmark cards or insurance commercials. "You plan for the future, but you brace yourself for the unexpected," Rose advises Iris. And this from Iris: "It's not that you need to come back home—you just need to know that it's there."
How tiresome grows all that garden imagery, the flowery names and repetitious references to seeds and delicate blooms. We get it: Roots. Taylor, assuming the audience hasn't heard it the first 92 times, even puts the words in Aunt Daisy's mouth after Rose dies: "Now's the time to root cha-self to the livin'." (Good one, with a pretty drawing of a tree, for Hallmark's line of sympathy expressions.)
Now's the time for Regina Taylor to prune The Trinity River Plays before they're transplanted to the Goodman Theatre in Chicago early next year (DTC staged the premiere as a co-production). As they are, there's nothing special about these plays, either as three separate entities or as one over-long three-act drama. They're not startlingly original in how they deal with death and incest in a big Southern family—see Tracy Letts' August: Osage County for that. And they don't really add anything important to the canon of work by modern African-American playwrights whose writing reflects upon the African-American experience. Taylor's style as a playwright is more Lanford Wilson than August Wilson, with a heavy tip toward sentimentality.
In the 1970s, it wasn't easy for a Pinkston High schoolgirl, even a really bright one, to make the leap over the river to the campus of SMU, but Taylor doesn't tell that story. She doesn't provide any local flavor at all. Calling them The Trinity River Plays is grandiose. These aren't even the Jefferson Viaduct plays.
The performances all are first-rate, but isn't it puzzling that DTC, with its large resident company of professional actors, would cast out-of-towners to play characters who live in Dallas? All the actors come with impressive credentials—if you ever watched The Larry Sanders Show, you'll recognize Ms. Jerald, who played Garry Shandling's secretary—but really, not one role could have gone to a local actor who might actually have known where Oak Cliff was on a map before starting rehearsals?
Not that locale makes much difference in this. A tacked-on final speech by Iris about the Trinity River Project sounds suspiciously like product placement and will make no sense to Chicago audiences. Nor will weak jokes about Waxahachie and Terrell. Perhaps Taylor can change references to Skokie and East Moline. The state tree of Illinois, by the way, is the white oak.