Theatergoers are accustomed to, if not comforted by, the conventions of tragedies that unfold before their eyes during the course of dramatic action. A thornier scenario arises when the tragedy has taken place before the action commences, and harder still to accept is when unspeakable acts have been perpetrated upon children. It is into these waters that Julie Marie Myatt’s new play, “Boats on a River,” sails, albeit with open eyes and a sharp sensibility.
Action commences in Cambodia, in a shelter for girls freed from sexual slavery. The burnt-out Sidney (Nathaniel Fuller) bickers amiably with Sister Margaret (Dale Hodges) amid intimations that Sidney’s marriage (to a former Vietnamese prostitute) is in bad shape.
Domestic considerations are tossed to the side, though, with the arrival of young lawyer Jonathon (Kris L. Nelson), who brashly announces he’s leading an unannounced raid on a local brothel. He expects the shelter to take in, and care for, the 20-plus girls he plans to rescue.
To this point, the acting is sharp and the priorities precise. Director Michael Bigelow Dixon extracts cutting performances from Nelson, playing a Texan who becomes an iconoclast in his milieu by going into human rights work, and Fuller, as an aid worker who has abandoned his homeland to become a selfless hero (at least in his own mind).
The rescue operation, alas, is a bit of a bust, and Jonathon brings to the shelter only three girls aged five to 13. Here the staging hits an unavoidable snag. Because these young characters are depicted as the victims of serial sexual abuse, there is no way they can be portrayed by actual children. They are played, quite ably, by adults, but the inability to suspend disbelief remains a problem.
Yen (Jeany Park) is the oldest of the three and the one most attached to brothel life. Park subsumes her usual easygoing glamour into a lank-haired, slouching, eye-rolling adolescent who is most affecting. She argues with her saviors as though they were her captors and realistically outlines her dire options in Cambodian society in some of Myatt’s best dialogue.
Less effective are Lida (Mayano Ochi) and Kolab (Rebecca J. Wall), but not due to any real deficiencies in their work. They are called upon to look longingly over the walls of their shelter at the regular children going to school and to unveil parts of their delicate souls to psychiatrist Max (Randy Reyes, stalwart and sympathetic). But they are never drawn as distinct characters or defined by much other than their victimhood.
Granted, this could be taken as part of Myatt’s point: that these girls’ lives have been consumed by their early sexualization, opportunism defined by satisfying the gratification of others. But this point isn’t made very strongly, either. By the second act the grownups are having didactic debates about the sex trade, what causes and perpetuates it and whether there’s any hope for the future of these girls and those like them.
It’s a debate that needs to take place, but not necessarily onstage — at the expense of character development and dramatic resolution. The production throws in video segments in which the vile Ted Thompson (Peter Christian Hansen, who also appears briefly onstage) prepares for, and embarks upon, a vacation of sex tourism. While the device works on its own terms, we’re left in the end with little more than an unsavory American who thought he had found a sensual playground and left burned and chastened.
“Boats on a River” has no shortage of finely wrought dialogue, balance and craft. But this acute staging reveals its deepest deficiencies in sketched-out characters and a dramatic structure that essentially leads nowhere. At the end, the show makes a grab for the heart by having two young girls take the stage in place of Ochi and Wall. On opening night it was a moment that elicited more than one gasp of emotion, suggesting that this play, for all its flaws, possesses a certain bravery of its own.