The central metaphor of Jez Butterworth’s The River is crystallized in a story told by its nameless male character (played by Andrew William Smith) about catching his very first sea trout at the age of seven. Narrating the story in the present tense, he describes hooking the fish – “my heart is beating in my cheeks, and my knees are thrumming like pneumatic drills” – reeling it in, picking it up and holding it in his hands, and then – suddenly, inexplicably, and without realizing what is happening – losing it. He is both devastated and thrilled: “I never, ever forgot that feeling.”
It’s a feeling the man can’t describe in words, but he seems compelled to try to recapture it, and those attempts have shifted, in his adult life, from the realm of fishing to the realm of love. As the play opens, the man has brought his new girlfriend, played with humor and aplomb by the excellent Daina Michelle Griffith, to his isolated cabin by the river to share his passion for fly-fishing. He’s trying to reel her in, too, and throughout the first scene you can’t help but feel a tinge of menace in the air – perhaps it’s the setup (man alone with woman out in the deep dark woods), or the fact that he whips out an enormous hunting knife to get a splinter out of her finger?
But this play’s violence, if you can call it that, is of a much subtler sort. The first scene ends with the reading of a Ted Hughes poem – soliciting a grunt of disgust from the woman, for reasons left unexplained – and a blackout; in the next scene, the man is on the phone with the police, frantically reporting his girlfriend missing, when in she walks – except that the person who walks in the door is a different woman (played by Siovhan Christensen, in some of the best work I’ve seen her do). Is this a previous girlfriend, or one who came later? If this woman was an earlier catch, what happened to her? And if she’s a later conquest, what happened to Griffiths’ character?
The play’s ambiguous temporal structure heightens the vague sense of dread that gnaws at the edges of the action – similar moments of doubt, unease, and distrust crop up between the man and each of the women, and the pattern of repetition makes clear that the man’s need for the thrill of the chase has turned him into what most women would recognize as a charming but sociopathic liar and serial philanderer. He gives each woman his heart – both figuratively and literally – in the same moment telling each that she is the first and only to receive that gift, and directing her to the box under the bed where she will find the evidence that she is just one of many.
The play feels, mood-wise, more like it’s about a serial killer, a feeling underlined by the way Andrew William Smith’s very fine performance alternates between a solicitous sweetness and a creepy hyperintensity. That vaguely foreboding feeling is enhanced by K. Jenna Ferree’s atmospheric lighting design, which subtly shifts into an eerie gloam as the action proceeds.The off-kilter mystery of the play is also captured by Britton Mauk’s set, which appends a cozy and inviting rustic-modern cabin to the boathouse at the Aspinwall Riverfront Park. Glimpses of the Allegheny River can be seen through the cabin’s windows, while a water-filled channel in the floor of the set brings the river inside, creating an ever-present reminder of the central role the river played in the man’s psychic history. The mini-river also presents an awkward physical obstacle to the actors for much of the play, and although it is visually arresting, as a scenic metaphor it feels a little heavy-handed.
Director Adil Mansoor smartly resists the temptation to resolve the ambiguity of this play for his audience, trusting, for the most part, in the text (although towards the end of the play, he takes some interpretive license with his use of the mini-river that I felt put too much of a finger of sympathy for the man on the narrative scale). Overall, and to his credit, the production maintains a creepy edge of suspense that feels right for this play about a man angling, again and again, for what he’s lost before.