I do not know with what weapons World War III will be fought, Albert Einstein once said, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and rocks.
It is after the war now. The great cities are gone, and the networks which kept us alive and healthy are in disarray. Once we dreamed of luxury vacations and hot cars and McMansions and bling, but now we dream of some little hunk of meat to go with our root vegetables. And water. Most of all, we dream of water.
After years of chaos, war and starvation, a group of warriors led by Terrence (Ryan Nathaniel George) have found the mother lode: a well, capable, if used wisely, of sustaining a small community indefinitely. His discovery and leadership have made him a King. But they have not won back his wife Samira (Monet), who hides in the woods with her beloved, Greta (Jessica Savage) and the child Kalil (Jalon Christian) who they have rescued from one of the charnel houses that sits in what used to be a town.
C.A. Johnson’s Thirst is a meditation on the war of all against all, and on the uses of power. It is also a thrillfest and a corking good time. Johnson obviously understands that a playwright needs to engage her audience; from the middle of the second scene, when we first learn the central dilemma – Samira’s household has not received its day’s lawful ration of water – until the surprisingly sotto voce denouement, she has us in the grip of her hand.
The reason Samira and Greta have not received their water is because Terrence wants to see his wife again, and by holding the very stuff of life hostage, expects to do so. (The program quotes the Auden poem First Things First: “Thousands have lived without love, not one without water.”). Instead, Greta comes to confront him, with catastrophic results. Terrence’s power-drunk use of his authority over water to enrich his personal circumstances enrage both his sage older brother Bankhead (William Oliver Watkins) and his hotheaded military leader Coolie (Justin Withers, making a smashing professional debut), who understand that it threatens not only Terrence’s leadership but the whole social order which has given them the only peace they’ve known for several years. But Terrence, who lives in an acid bath of pain and resentment, is too far gone to hear them.
closes July 29, 2018
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A conventional story might make Terrence a monster, and the enemy who must be overcome prior to catharsis and resolution. Johnson is out for bigger game, though. Her Terrence radiates a pain which is instantly recognizable and is as big as life. He has done nothing wrong, and all he valued has been taken from him.
This is a big story, with big characters and big emotions. As Terrence, George is tiger-sized, but also big enough to understand his own mistakes; when Watkins’ relentless Bankhead recites Terrence’s failings to him, Terrence winces again and again like a boxer, past the point of exhaustion, taking blows. Notwithstanding Terrence’s fearsomeness, both Bankhead and Coolie take him on without hesitation, for the good of their community. So does Greta, when Samira does not.
Peace has settled over the community, but they are not a peaceful people. Every confrontation carries with it the possibility of death, and therefore has the highest stakes possible. (The production’s fine technical staff, led by Kassidy Coburn, is an essential ally in this endeavor; when Samira fires her gun at Bankhead, stones fly up where the bullet impacts the ground.) Each character is accordingly wound as tight as a bowstring, and the actors are the equal to the task. This fierceness, perhaps paradoxically, makes the characters more appealing. In the end, we cheer each small victory each character realizes, while mourning each defeat. That’s good writing. That’s good acting. That’s good theater.
This could be a story about race – in the whole community, only Greta is white, and they are threatened by another community, of white supremacists. It could be a story about sexual orientation: Coolie calls Greta and Samira “dykes”, which touches off an astonishingly brutal fight between him and Terrence. (Kudos for the fine work of Fight Director Aaron Anderson, assisted by Joe Myers; Bruce Hargrove, who plays a soldier in Terrence’s army, is the fight captain). But to Johnson’s eternal credit, it is not clear what role either race or gender preference plays in these events, much as it unclear in real life.
My only quarrel with Johnson is that she has thrust too much emotional and narrative responsibility into the hands of Kalil. The actor cannot convey it; he is difficult to understand and when he speaks, it is often in a monotone. There is an extremely limited supply of child actors who can contribute real emotional resonance to a story (because, thank God, their own emotional experiences are limited) and a playwright cannot expect herself lucky enough to get one in every given production.
But even with this problem, the play itself, and the rollicking performances which grace it, is resonant and powerful enough to make Thirst one of the CATF’s most memorable productions ever.
Thirst by C.A. Johnson, directed by Adrienne Campbell-Holt, featuring Jalon Christian, Monet, Jessica Savage, Justin Withers, Ryan Nathaniel George, William Oliver Watkins, and fight captain Bryce Hargrove . Scenic design by Jesse Dreikosen . Costume design by Trevor Bowen . Lighting design by Tony Galaska . Sound design by Elisheba Ittoop . The technical director is Kassidy Coburn. The fight director is Aaron Anderson, assisted by Joe Myers . The stage manager is Lori M. Doyle, assisted by Cate Agis . Produced by the Contemporary American Theater Festival . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.