A deeply felt, obviously deeply personal work, Regina Taylor’s “The Trinity River Plays” can also be deeply powerful, but only in spurts. Fortunately, in this Goodman Theater production (co-produced with the Dallas Theater Center, where the play premiered late last year), superlative performances under Ethan McSweeny’s direction support the drama even as the story becomes less surprising and potent, if still always relatable.
The strong first act, called “Jar Fly,” is the only act of the three that could remotely be imagined as an independent play despite the implication of the title. “Jar Fly” possesses as its climax a decisive turning point in the life of leading character Iris (talented, exceptionally versatile Karen Aldridge), who on her 17th birthday is raped by a trusted uncle.
“Jar Fly” shows off Taylor’s writing at her best, with her tendency to flights of poetic language focused here on a single metaphor – the act’s title refers to cicadas – which emanates from Iris’s curiosity and insecurities and provides for an intense final moment that exposes the character’s psychological trauma.
Act two, “Rain,” takes place 17 years after the first act, as Iris returns home to Dallas following a divorce, and becomes the caretaker for her mother, Rose (Penny Johnson Jerald), as she battles cancer. Even as the two strong, smart women share plenty of love and mutual admiration, neither is willing to share her deepest demons with the other, and the act ends with Iris lamenting her mother’s passing with a wail that seems a release from years of needing but failing to confess her darkest secret to her closest human connection.
The final act is called “Ghoststory,” so it shouldn’t surprise anyone that Rose returns as a prominent figure as Iris deals with her mother’s loss and applies whatever life lessons she has absorbed to a potential choice between two men, her professor ex-husband Frank (Jefferson A. Russell) or the former basketball player (Samuel Ray Gates) she crushed on as a teenager. It’s here that Taylor gives in to familiar cliches, as the men too literally compete for her affection.
The quality of acting here is stellar. As Iris’s Aunt Daisy, Jacqueline Williams delivers much of the play’s humor, emanating down-to-earth contradictions. And as Daisy’s daughter Jasmine, Christiana Clark manages to make her rebellious and troubled character consistently compelling.
The design work is also notable. Todd Rosenthal’s lovingly detailed A-frame home acknowledges Taylor’s more existential considerations with its exposed ceiling, while very realistically depicting a well-tended home that ages, but gracefully, retaining a sense of familial comfort.