By Edith McCauley
Playing at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, The Trinity River Plays are without a doubt playwright Regina Taylor’s greatest work. She has always written of “powerful female characters” and in this work, the women surpass them all. In an interview with Artistic Director Robert Falls, she says, “… while these plays are not specifically about my life or my mother’s life, they’re plays about family relationships, plays about love, and they’re plays about life”…a perfect description.
Written in three acts, each able to stand alone, the story interweaves the lives of Iris, Daisy, her aunt, Jasmine, her cousin, and Rose, her mother. The actresses who literally become these women create their roles with such authenticity, we want them to continue their stories indefinitely. Karen Aldridge is Iris, and in Jar Fly, she is a 17-year-old striving to find her identity in writing. She narrates from a beanbag seat, and so we get to know her. Aunt Daisy (Jacqueline Williams) and Jasmine (Christiana Clark) are staying with her while Mother Rose (Penny Johnson Jerald) is attending a workshop in San Antonio. Samuel Ray Gates, a teen-age Jack, and Jefferson A. Russell (Ray Earl) complete the cast.
The subtle character development keeps the audience completely enthralled. Clark as Jasmine is an out-of-control teen-ager whose abuse by Ray has caused irreparable damage. Wildly physical, we see only her anger. Williams, as Daisy, strives to keep everyone’s lives on an even keel, often with little success.
Following the first intermission, we find the family re-united with Rose (Jerald). It is 1995, and she has been diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Iris, now a successful writer and editor, returns to Dallas to care for her mother. Here the set becomes a significant part of the play. Rose’s garden seems a metaphor for her life’s values. The thriving flowers form a colorful introduction to her character and determination to live and die as she chooses. Iris cannot deal with this, and Rain, the most dramatic of the trilogy, literally ends with rain pouring into the garden as Iris wails in grief.
By the second intermission, much of the audience was in tears. Seldom have I seen so much emotional involvement. Ghoststory finds Rose and Iris in the garden. Iris is trying to recreate herself in Rose’s image. Rose remains and is the spirit guiding Iris to a new life. Taylor’s narrative develops much as our own lives do, and her women become the family we know from earliest childhood. It is not all tragedy–as in life, humor and joy balance grief.
August Wilson’s plays are some of the lengthiest works staged, and my initial impression on hearing that The Trinity River Plays ran over three hours was not positive. So engrossing was Taylor’s work, I could have stayed another hour.
The Trinity River Plays is highly recommended. Running only through Feb. 20, I hope it will be extended. Tickets are currently on sale at GoodmanTheatre.org or by calling (312) 443-3800.
As a final note…The women chosen by Director Ethan McSweeney are absolutely spectacular. They all deserve a Tony and a Jeff.