The River at Spooky Action (review)

It looks like a love story — a Heathcliff-and-Catherine love story, where the passion is so profound and misshapen that it obliterates the boundaries of everyday reality. But it isn’t.

It looks like a ghost story — a story where the past, etched in grey like an English sea town in the fog, washes over the present and leaves us all with a wet chill on our faces and our clothes. But it isn’t.

Instead, The River is a story about a man (Jeffrey Allin) and two women (Emma Jackson and Karen Novack) who go fly-fishing. All fishing is based on deception but fly-fishing is exquisitely so, in that the fisher makes the bait dance inches above the water, so that the fish (in this case, sea trout) believe they are seeing a real insect, full of protein, within their easy grasp. What’s more, to this man, in this play, only artificial lures will do; if you put real food at the end of the hook, you’re cheating.

The River is at once wonderfully specific and wonderfully vague. It is specific in that the prey is sea trout — brown trout which escape into the salt waters off the coast, and return big and multi-colored — and nothing else; when the man guts, fillets and broils the fish with a medley of vegetables (New York reviewers went nuts when Hugh Jackman did this in the Broadway production) the room is filled with a very specific aroma, recalling (if you’re lucky) very specific memories.

But it is wonderfully vague too. The characters have no names, and the location is unidentified, although the dialect limits it to somewhere in England.

Jeffrey Allin and Emma Jackson in The River (Photo: Tony Hitchcock)

And that, brothers and sisters, is all I will tell you about The River. I’m sorry, but if I write one additional word about this delicate soufflé of a play I will spoil it for you.

So let’s talk about the production. Rebecca Holderness, a Milwaukee-based director who periodically comes to Spooky Action in order to make DC jaws drop, has once again created an immersive, imaginative, intuitively spot-on experience; a mouth-watering marriage of form and substance.

We begin with Vicki Davis’ good set design, all wood boards and dark panels, punctuated by the accouterments of a working kitchen and graced with fine wine and whiskey. This is the sort of cabin such people — literate and nimble — might attend. (The nature poetry of Ted Hughes sets the play in motion; knowing the story of Hughes’ personal life deepens your understanding of the play). Late in the play, we see a huge tree behind the cabin, thick-branched and bare of leaves; this is winter, and we are looking at something that could be a hanging tree.

Gordon Nimmo-Smith soaks the production in haunting Irish music which Caroline Dubberly sings, mostly without instruments. The characters wear gear that could have come out of an Orvis catalogue but looks lived-in.

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Want to go?

The River

closes February 26, 2017
Details and tickets
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The story requires three good actors to work; Holderness and Spooky Action deliver. Look in particular at Allin when one of the women is talking to him; his body, and his eyes, tell a story of their own. Jackson, an experienced actor relatively new to DC theater, creates an enormously engaging character, simultaneously fierce and vulnerable. Novack is given a little less to work with by the text, but she is at every moment convincing, and when her climactic speech takes a surprising turn you will find that she has prepared you for it.

Jez Butterworth has swaddled this play in the high language, but Holderness and these fine actors make the poetry seem natural and unforced. The River is set in two separate time periods but Holderness has merged the action in a way which allows story to triumph over mere chronology.

So that’s all I can tell you, brothers and sisters. If this much of the tale has whetted your appetite, go see the play in full. If it hasn’t, change your mind and see it anyway.

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The River by Jez Butterworth. Directed by Rebecca Holderness, assisted by Jennifer Knight. Featuring Jeffrey Allin, Emma Jackson, and Karen Novack . Set design: Vicki R. Davis . Lighting design: Matthew E. Adelson . Sound design: Gordon Nimmo-Smith . Costume design: Erik Teague . Costume technician: Hiram Orozco . Stage Manager: Katie Bücher, assisted by Christopher Hrozencik . Produced by Spooky Action Theater . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.

Tim Treanor About Tim Treanor

Tim Treanor is a senior writer for DC Theatre Scene. He is a 2011 Fellow of the National Critics Institute and has written over 600 reviews for DCTS. His novel, "Capital City," with Lee Hurwitz, is scheduled for publication by Astor + Blue in November of 2016. He lives in a log home in the woods of Southern Maryland with his dear bride, DCTS Editor Lorraine Treanor. For more Tim Treanor, go to timtreanorauthor.com.

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