Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
In The River Becomes the Sea, Cragun places that conflict in New Orleans soon after the Civil War. Congress has imposed a new order on the defeated Confederacy by means of Reconstruction, laws aimed at repressing the deeply imbedded racism of white Southerners. The suppression of white supremacy and the elevation of blacks to equal status is an abomination to Tristan, a young man who has returned from the war. With his father killed in the war, Tristan has taken on operation of the family textile business, founded by his grandfather Cornelius. On the day we meet Tristan, his Aunt Eliza is returning home for the first time in many years. Drummed out of New Orleans by her family for behavior deemed scandalous, Eliza has become a well-known author living in New York City, where things, she avers, are more civilized. Tristan's mother Agatha has invited Eliza to speak at a ball to raise money for an orphanage, hoping that the occasion becomes an opportunity for reconciliation with her sister.
Tristan's seething hatred casts a shadow over the prospect of a warm embrace of forgiveness and renewed family ties. He objects to his aunt's return, calling Eliza "a Yankee woman coming to tell us how to run our affairs," and has disdain for Eliza's charming young assistant, a black woman named Diana. Tristan is also dismayed by the aspirations of his childhood friend Benjamin, the son of a slave who had been emancipated by Cornelius, but stayed on in the family's employ. As boys, Tristan and Benjamin were constant companions, almost like brothers; now, Tristan expects Benjamin to defer to him as a white man. To the alarm of his family, Tristan is drawn to a secret organization dedicated to restoring the dominance of white Southerners, believing that to be a "divine order." To Tristan, it is he who feels burdened to suppress his native impulses (though he barely does so), pushed to accommodate a new order of civility and tolerance that is insufferable, until his dark impulses become too much to control, leading to a tragic end.
These personal dramas occur under the cloud of a rising Mississippi River, threatening to break through its levee and wreak havoc on the charity ball, the sisters' reunion, and the city itself. Throughout the play, pointed references are made to gathering clouds and distant rumblings of thunder. Yet, when the storm comesas we know it willit feels like a minor plot point, bearing no consequence on the main narrative. There is also a subplot about an intimate relationship between Benjamin and another character that is never given much room to grow, and references to another family member, Imogenperhaps another sister to Eliza and Agatha, though that is never made clear. All of this amounts to a bit too much along the periphery, while Tristan's slide to ruination at the hands of his passion is never in doubt.
The entire play is set in one of New Orleans' public squares, beautifully designed by Ursula K. Bowden, complete with hanging moss, a lovely fountain, and Greco-Roman columns that suggest a link to some eternal truths. However, the convenience of this square as a location wears thin: One set of characters completes their conversation and exit, then, presto, at once another set enters, all in the same space. We never get a glimpse of what is happening to characters elsewhere, away from that lovely square. It is all so sequential, creating a staginess that diminishes a natural flow in the course of events.
In spite of the stagey feeling of the play, director Ernest Briggs has done an excellent job of keeping scenes moving without pause, so there is never a lapse in engagement, and the interactions among characters bear the ring of truth. We feel this in the increasingly fraught relationship between Tristan and his mother Agatha, in the differing perspectives on politics and commerce exchanged between Tristan and his grandfather, and in Diana's gradual lowering of her guard with Agatha. The excellent ensemble of actors contributes greatly to bringing the characters to life, even if The River Becomes the Sea's mannered storytelling makes their actions fairly predictable.
Among the actors, Nicholas Nelson makes an especially strong impression as Tristan, portraying the inveterate Southerner who has not yet given up the Confederacy as he slides from gentility to menace. Sarah Broude gives a powerful turn as Agatha, earnestly reaching out to her prodigal while showing a staunch backbone in opposition to her son's creed. As Eliza, Heidi Berg enters with wonderful haughtiness, her defense against her family's rejection, such as, after acknowledging that her own dress is the latest New York fashion, sharply telling Agatha that her dress "bespeaks a bygone era." Berg depicts Eliza softening in her relationship with Diana, in her cautious acceptance of Agatha's warmth, and her ebullience when encountering Benjamin.
Richard D. Woods plays Benjamin, making clear the moments when Benjamin realizes that the war may have ended on the battlefields but not in hearts of people in New Orleans' public squares. Lana Bean is lovely as Diana, bashful and reticent upon her arrival, and unfolding her outer shell so we may appreciate what a special young woman she is. Jon Stentz is an apt Cornelius, made weary and wise through life's ordeals, learning along the way what it is that matters. He is both affable and stoical, as conditions warrant. Completing the cast, Nicole Goeden, as Margaret, conveys the warmth of a goodhearted Irish-woman whose orphanage is the beneficiary of the charity ball. All of these characters speak with accents, and all are well executed, from Margaret's charming Irish lilt, to the shadow of a lingering Southern drawl in Eliza's sophisticated New Yorker, to Cornelius's Southern gentleman's drawl burnished by his frequent drinking.
Rubble&Ash is a new name for the costume design collaboration of Andrea M. Gross and Barb Portinga. Their designs for The River Becomes the Sea are beautiful, creating dresses, gowns, and gentlemen's attire that feel fresh out of a page in history. Mitchel Frazier's lighting and David Lewis-Frazier's sound design both add tremendously to establishing the play's atmosphere, especially in the increasing imminence of the storm that builds to a crescendo.
We are reminded, both in the play's opening and in an epilogue, that New Orleans sits at the mouth of the Mississippi, where the river becomes the sea. The significance of this as the play's title is never made explicit. I take it as the last stand where water is channeled between two parallel banks, pushed in one direction, before it spills into the vast and ferocious openness of the ocean. A city and its society strive to maintain order and rationality, yet it is only a matter of time before it breaks free, and, as The Bacchae tells us, perhaps the more constraining is that order, the more explosive is its eruption into freedom. Is Tristan's explosiveness caused by an alienating order imposed upon him or by the internalized order of his own undying values, that sooner or later cannot be contained? How does one grapple with contemporary Tristan's inability to accept society's boundaries or to restrain their own roiling beliefs from gathering so much force that they must explode?
The River Becomes the Sea is flawed in its construction, but Nimbus gives it a stirring production, well-acted and beautifully designed. Its underlying issues emerge, leaving us pondering the degree to which today's society is riven by a growing inability for many among us to accept constraints of social order, and allow their impulses to reign. What happens then, once the river becomes the sea?
Nimbus' The River Becomes the Sea, through December 16, 2018, at the Crane Theater, 2303 Kennedy Street N.E., Minneapolis MN. All tickets are $12.00 - $15.00. For more information and tickets call 612-548-1379 or go to nimbustheatre.com.
Playwright: Josh Cragun; Director: Ernest Briggs; Set Design: Ursula K. Bowden; Costume Design: Rubble & Ash; Lighting Design: Michelle Frazier; Sound Design: David Lewis-Frazier; Prop Design: Corinna Knepper Troth; Dramaturg: Alex Meyer; Stage Manager: Alyssa Thompson.
Cast: Lana Bean (Diana), Heidi Berg (Eliza), Sarah Broude (Agatha), Nicole Goeden (Margaret), Nicholas Nelson (Tristan), Jon Stentz (Cornelius), Richard D. Woods (Benjamin).