Directed by Andrea J. Dymond
Produced by Eclipse Theatre Company
Strong Production Carries Script
Mud, River, Stone wraps up Eclipse Theatre Company’s season dedicated to Lynn Nottage. The choice is odd, since the play, written in 1998, is one of Nottage’s earlier works, and is an ancestor to her Pulitzer Prize winning Ruined, which Eclipse has already produced earlier this year. This production is strong, but has to compensate for an illogical script.
The story begins with upper-middle class African-American couple David (Robert Hardaway) and Sarah Bradley (Anji White) regaling their friends with their adventure in Africa. This is jarring, because as the promotional materials make clear, the play is about a hostage situation, and now we know the main characters survive and are comfortable telling the story a few months later for amusement. David and Sarah, who are inexperienced travelers and had never even been camping, thought it would be a good idea to spend their vacation in an un-named central African country. They got lost following a “road” that was the result of an animal stampede, got caught in the first storm of the rainy season, unwittingly crossed a mine field, and sought shelter in a colonial hotel.
There are two other people in the hotel: a white African and nephew of the hotel’s founder, Mr. Blake (Zach Bloomfield), and the bellhop Joaquim (Anthony Conway). These two are so out of touch that, if not for the modern radio in the corner, you might think David and Sarah wandered into a ghost story. Blake snaps orders at the glowering Joaquim, who is casually revealed as an ex-child soldier, but is good company to the Bradleys. For their part, the Bradleys are fed up with their vacation, and become increasingly agitated as Blake tries to explain to them they will have to forgo ordinary amenities like reliable phone service and electricity so deep in the bush, and that the state is a cartographical fiction.
The rain brings in two additional lodgers: Nigerian missionary Ama Cyllah (Elana Elyce) and Neibert (Matt Thinnes), a Belgian who is intent on assimilating into African village life and hunting mythological creatures. They bring upsetting news about soldiers mobilizing, which sets off a heated argument between Joaquim and Blake about the purpose and significance of the country’s recurring civil wars. Joaquim steals Blake’s gun (which Blake is possibly about to draw), and takes everyone hostage, demanding a new grain shipment for his village and a blanket for his mother. The UN sends Simone Frick (Delia Baseman) to mediate, but her plane leaves as soon as she disembarks without giving her instructions or means of communicating, and Joaquim kidnaps her, too.
Kevin Scott has created a beautiful design for the hotel, which becomes a character in itself. The black and white photographs, hunting trophies, and liquor cabinet are not only realistic, but as Joaquim says, tell the story of the people who built them. All the performers add personality to characters who are basically archetypes. I especially enjoyed Thinnes as the clueless, well-intentioned Neibert, and White, who whose character tries to avoid becoming the ugly American and fails miserably. Conway’s Joaquim is playing the tough guy, but clearly is unsure of himself and confused about the situation he has created. He and Hardaway work well together in one of the few scenes that gives their characters depth.
The problem is that it takes Joaquim far too long in stage-time to injure one of the hostages enough to create a sense of menace, let alone the time that is supposed to have passed within the story. He’s just one guy with six hostages, one of whom, Mr. Blake, is experienced in dirty business of all sorts. And yet he holds them for days. The play is also dated in some ways, like the line about how everybody in Africa has a cell phone, but they don’t get service. Today, Africans usually get more reliable service on their cell phones than on their landlines, so the isolation the set-up requires wouldn’t happen. I also doubt even the UN would deliberately abandon one of its workers like that. If you can get past these logical fallacies, and accept the play as an allegory or a presentation of ideas, it works well. If you’ve enjoyed the other work Eclipse has done this season, you may also appreciate a chance to see Nottage in her early days, and track her development. The most important information you need when deciding to see this is that Eclipse has made the play as strong as it can be, but it is an early work.
Reviewed November 9, 2014
Playing in the Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 North Southport Ave, Chicago. For tickets, call 773-935-6875. Runs through December 14; Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 7:30 pm, Sunday at 2:00 pm. Tickets $28 or $20 for seniors and students. Running time is two hours with one intermission.