It was Virginia Satir who taught us that words and phrases and the attitudes they foster are developed early in life and then replicated in new relationships when we have a chance to use them again. There couldn’t be a better example of how that works than we have in this beautiful production of Jez Butterworth’s “The River,” which has its protagonist, the Man (Billy Carter), negotiate over and over, like a scene from “Groundhog Day,” his connection to the Cabin, the River, the Fish, Fishing, and his profound single love for the only Woman in his life (Andrea Goss, then Jasmine Bachelor).
We don’t know (and Butterworth doesn’t want us to know) whether the original woman in the Man’s memory was his mother, an early girl-friend, or a later lover, but we do know that the words he uses to relate to the Woman we see with him are the same words he has used before. They get especially intense when he is describing both his love for the special fish that live in the deep pond in the river on his property, and his declaration that he has never felt love (as he does for HER) this pure and deep before. Hearing the same words reapplied – perhaps to a new woman – is the clue to the Man’s stuck place and perhaps why part of his experience is that the Woman, unlike the fish, cannot be satisfactorily caught or pinned down by him.
Great images that I think of as I recollect the Script include the sunset dialogue, when he won’t take time to look at the amazing sunset because he needs to search for his knife and complete his prep for moonless fishing of the grand sea-trout. She doesn’t want to go. We think he overwhelms that and presses her to go with him.
There are fabulous projections of the rushing river. Then suddenly he is back in the cabin calling the police. But before he can finish reporting her missing, the Woman enters with jacket and basket. They croon a ballad of “I kept calling for you,” to each other, and the Woman surprises him by pulling a large and glorious fish from her basket and telling him how another man helped her catch it, using a monster commercial lure.
The other man causes all kinds of feelings in the Man. Jealousy. Contempt for the monster lure as opposed to real tied flies. Concern that he was a poacher invading the Man’s private property. Jealousy again! “Did you kiss him?” Only a peck on the cheek, she explains, but then taunts him that they had a quick sexual connection too. There’s a break between the Man and the Woman at this point in the play, while she goes off for a shower and refresh…
Left alone with the fish, the Man has a chance to worship his best love. He spreads a newspaper, guts the fish and wraps the entrails, washes the grit away, and skillfully prepares the large fish for baking. This is a complete demonstration as flavorings are applied and lemon slices cut and placed precisely in pockets he’s created along the top of the fish. We might be watching Julia Child in this scene, which is remarkably managed by Billy Carter, ending with a handsome trout on a baking stone, carefully placed into the wood-stove.
When the woman returns, he brings the fish out of the stove and they eat at it, with a whole new dialogue, loving and appreciating the taste of the fresh fish, so well prepared. He is egging her on to appreciate the taste. She changes the subject to “Did you mean it when you said you love me?” Now we get another dialogue he’s rehearsed before. “All my life I’ve searched for the right person to share with. Never found anyone before you.” Then, telling her he’s going to share something he’s never told anyone else about, he urges her to look in the basket under the bed.
There’s a heart-shaped stone he found in the deep pool in the river one day. He gets her to unwrap it, but it triggers a response we weren’t expecting. The Woman says, “I’m leaving.” He offers to be a gentleman and drive her to the station. She rebuffs the offer and walks out.
Left alone with his thoughts, the Man contemplates being alone. In his thoughts, another woman appears. We don’t know if she’s in the past or the present. But using the carefully processed lures he knows so well, he takes the stone from his pocket. “I want to show you something I’ve never shared with anyone before.” And the lights go down.
“The River” is so beautifully directed (Rob Ruggiero) and its cabin so well designed (Brian Prather) that it feels real even while being surreal. Lighting (John Lasiter), Sound and Music (Frederick Kennedy), and the Costumes (Tricia Barsamian) all contribute to the production. The projection of the flowing river makes a great symbol between scenes.
Tickets and information at www.theaterworkshartford.org, or call 860-527-7838.
Tom Nissley for the Ridgelea Reports on Theatre Oct. 16