Writer: Jean Dobie Giebel
Director: Ella Jane New
Reviewer: Carrie Lee O’Dell
In poker, the term “chasing the river” refers to a player who stays in the game with a hand that’s not a sure thing in hopes of a final card that will turn everything around. Chain Theatre’s latest offering takes its name from this term. Jean Dobie Giebel’s Chasing the River tells the story of a woman who returns to her hometown to settle her aunt’s estate. Once there, she’s faced with her troubled family history and the circumstances that sent her to prison in the first place. Ella Jane New directs.
Set in a small, unnamed town in Pennsylvania, Chasing the River focuses on Kat (Christina Elise Perry), an ex-con who has restarted her life in Philadelphia. The play opens with her return to the house where she grew up. Her high school boyfriend Sam (David Rey) provides some company and support, but mostly Kat is alone with her memories of her supportive Aunt Adelaide (Sarah Thigpen), her alternately abusive and attentive father Nathaniel (David Wenzel), and her oblivious mother Margaret (Robyne Parrish). Through flashbacks and exposition, we learn about Kat’s past as a high-achieving student who became adept at hiding what went on behind closed doors at home. Things are further complicated when Kat’s long-missing sister Beth (Caroline Orlando) surfaces. Together, the sisters come to terms with the circumstances that led to Kat’s incarceration and Beth’s decision to flee their troubled family, uncovering a variety of secrets in the process.
Performances in Chasing the River are solid all around. Especially good are Christina Elise Perry and Caroline Orlando who rise to the considerable challenge of playing their characters as present-day adults and as children and teenagers in flashback. Design choices, however, are a little more uneven. Most of the play’s action takes place on the front porch of Kat and Beth’s childhood home; set designer Raye Levine Spielberg sought to evoke a lattice-front porch with a raised platform on milk crates. It was a valiant effort, but they still look like milk crates. Sound designer Greg Russ does some fine work with voiceover flashbacks, but the choice to use a violin cover of Andrea Bocelli’s “Con Te Partirò” for interstitial music throughout felt odd; it’s hard not to hear it without thinking of Carmela Soprano. Neither of these were egregious design flaws, but both were a bit distracting.
Playwright Jean Dobie Giebel confronts decidedly important issues in her play. The play does a particularly good job of putting us in Kat’s mind as she flashes back to her childhood. She can never silence her memories; the choice to have them triggered by small details highlights the lasting effects of her trauma and how fragile any sense of safety she has is. Giebel also addresses the issues the family history of abuse and misogyny that allowed Kat’s abuse to flourish without making Adelaide and Nathaniel’s youth a subplot. That said, there are a few minor missteps. The poker metaphor, drawn from a speech about second chances that Adelaide gives a college-bound Kat, feels forced. Sam’s frequent Arnold Schwartznegger impressions seem like an attempt at levity in a heavy play, but end up just being dated. Even so, Chasing the River is a thoughtful and relevant look at the legacies of abuse. Survivors of domestic and sexual abuse might want to approach with caution.
Runs until 29 February 2020 | Photo Credit: Matt Wells