Basketball is loud and fast. Soccer is sheer perfect action. Football is hard-hitting, even brutal. But there’s a different kind of intensity in another sport: Fly fishing. Fly fishermen say there’s a meditative, almost mystical, quality about it. And that’s the philosophical underpinning to Jez Butterworth’s The River, now being staged by Boho Theatre.
Director Jerrell L. Henderson manages this slip of a magical story (65 minutes, compared to Butterworth’s 3.5 hour The Ferryman) carefully in the first floor studio at the Greenhouse Theater Center. His three talented actors are in a rural fishing cabin above the river, somewhere in England. The Man ((Joe Lino) speaks poetically about the run of sea trout that will appear in the river on this moonless night. He wants the Woman (Christina Gorman), apparently his new girlfriend, to join him in that fishing quest, but she’s not eager to join him. He tried to teach her casting today and she got too much sun, she says. “And my book just got good.”
The next morning, the Man is frantically calling the police to find the Woman, who disappeared while taking a walk along the river. Just as he’s demanding this help, the door opens and the Other Woman (Chelsee Carter) breezes in, full of energy, and relieves his anxiety. She’s been fishing, it turns out, with a fisherman she met on the beach and caught a huge sea trout. At the end of the scene, the Man guts and cooks the trout, which he serves to the Woman in the next scene.
These are just some of the puzzles in the plot. Parts of some scenes are repeated. The Man quotes the writings of Aelian, a third century writer, on the beauty of fishing and the death of the fish. And who are the two women? Do their alternating appearances suggest there’s been a string of them visiting the Man in the fishing cabin? He wants them to share his passion for fly fishing. Each one asks him how many women he has brought there and each time he doesn’t answer. But in the end, it’s a play about a lonely man and a lonely sport.
The River is a strange, mystifying play but enigmas can make provocative theater. The best reason to seeThe River is to listen to Butterworth’s lyrical language, whether it’s the Man’s description of catching his first fish at age 7 or the poetry of the sea trout run or the Woman describing her walk along the upper road in the dark.
The meditative nature of fly fishing is a theme in the works of some writers and it has been addressed in neuroscience as well. In popular culture, the best known work is probably A River Runs Through It, by UofC professor Norman MacLean (both his semi-autobiographical novel and the film adaptation). In the opening of his 1976 book, MacLean says, “In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing. We lived at the junction of great trout rivers in western Montana, and our father was a Presbyterian minister and a fly fisherman who tied his own flies and taught others. He told us about Christ’s disciples being fishermen, and we were left to assume, as my brother and I did, that all first-class fishermen on the Sea of Galilee were fly fishermen….”
I asked a fisherman friend about his experience and he told me about the first time he went fly fishing. I recall, he said, “Listening to the morning wake up. The fresh smell of the air. Seeing the backdrop of the Tetons as the sun changed on the east face. Trying patiently to find the right spot to cast my line…. The joy of bringing a rainbow trout out of the water, but more importantly returning it to its home.”
At the end of the play, you may find yourself mystified. As we got up to leave, my plus one said, “You’re going to have to explain this to me.” And as we walked out of the theater on to Lincoln Avenue, the man in front of us said to his companion, “Let’s go have a drink so you can explain that.”
The cabin where The River is set was designed by Eric Luchen, with lighting by Kaili Story and sound by Eric Backus. Caitlin McLeod handled costume design.
Jez Butterworth is an English playwright and screenwriter whose play, The Ferryman, set in the time of the Irish Troubles, won the 2019 Tony award for best play. He’s also the author of Jerusalem, Parlour Song and Mojo. The River opened in London (starring Dominic West) in 2012 and on Broadway (starring Hugh Jackman) in 2014.
The River by Boho Theatre continues through July 28 at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave. Tickets are $30 for performances Thursday-Sunday.
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