by Erin Layton · October 6, 2013
Ready For The River, a play by Neal Bell, seamlessly directed by Edward Elefterion and superbly executed by Rabbit Hole Ensemble, is a story that penetrates like a blunt knife. Its blade is sharp enough to draw blood but too dull to kill you - or at least, not immediately. Bell’s world is deserted and hopeless but one that you want and need to remain with long enough to see what happens next, like witnessing the aftermath of a bad car wreck or watching a dying animal gasping for air on the side of the road. Your impulse is to step in and make a call or offer a warm blanket at the very least, but there’s something easier and incredibly satisfying albeit sinister in watching it suffer until it expires.
Doris (Sheila Joon), an economically strapped and careless mother, witnesses a horrific murder inside her family’s now abandoned ramshackle farmhouse. A man in a ski mask shoots and kills another man with a single bullet to the face. The murderer, her husband. The victim, the banker who foreclosed on their farm. The husband then turns the gun on Doris but she acts quick, covered in the victim’s blood, and grabs the few scant belongings she possesses, one of which is their indignant teenage daughter, Lorna (Abigail Wahl) and together they escape for the hills, destination unknown. Doris and Lorna are at war with each other and the tension between them is made worse by countless hours alone driving on dark roads in the middle of nowhere. They fight, bicker, complain and feed away at each other’s misery like a festering wound that refuses to heal. There are cryptic conversations about the murderous father and husband that leave us to wonder: Who was he? Why did he turn the gun on her? Is this a psychological break or is this how he’s always been? How could they run away and not look back?
And then there is the ghost of the dead banker (Brad Makarowksi) whose murder Doris witnessed in cold blood. His disturbing presence pursues Doris and Lorna as a bloody anchor to their past. They may be running but they can’t hide. Haunted visions and sounds rush through their world like a sharp chill. There is no comfort either in their relationship nor in their surroundings. Their encounters on the road with strangers who could possibly “save” them are only familiar visages of the one they fled from. Their escape is a never ending circle or a dog chasing its tail until it bites itself again and again. Theirs is a fast pursuit either toward or inside the walls of hell.
Elefterion is a master minimalist and skilled craftsman in the creation of Bell’s world. Using only a few scattered prop pieces, distant noises and brilliant lighting transitions expertly designed by Jamie Roderick, we are sharply plunged between two worlds of the cold, bleak wilderness where howling dogs and nightmares abound to the damp inside of a rusted old car that reeks of dried blood and aromas akin to “gutted fish”. Rolled up sleeping bags lurk at the dark corners of the stage like sick, rabid animals on the fringes of the world where sleep is lost - only danger lives, dull and rain soaked.
Elefterion is also an actor’s director. The ensemble consisting of Joon, Wahl, Makarowski and Paul Tiesler, all shine in the bare bones staging of this production. The actors wear their characters like a second skin. We are able to closely track their individual stories undisturbed by the usual elements of elaborate, overbearing set or prop pieces. Our imaginations are immediately engaged, turned and twisted in ways that surprise, shock and disturb.
Ready For The River is honest in its nihilism. While I don’t necessarily think that this play represents “the story of America”, it certainly does not hide from the sad and terrible reality for many Americans - the stories of home foreclosures forcing families on the streets or taking to the road in despairing attempts to rescue the little that is left behind. I think Bell’s play is more the story of the human heart that when tested, when stripped of all that we possess, drives us into mad states of desperation, escape, abandonment and even crime.