They’ve asked us not to reveal the ending of “The River,” a play by Jez Butterworth (author of “Jerusalem”) starring Hugh Jackman as a man who likes to fish. But I’m not sure what difference knowing the ending would make, since it’s only slightly less enigmatic than the beginning or the middle of this play.
Click on any photograph to see it enlarged.
The man (he’s not given a name) has invited the woman (also without a name, portrayed by Cush Jumbo) to join him in his remote cabin built on a cliff above a river, that has belonged to his family for generations. We gather from their conversation that she is his new girlfriend. Some of her comments are drily amusing, almost (but not quite) repartee. She wants to show him the beautiful sunset. He is too busy gathering his fishing equipment for some night-time fishing; since there’s no moon, the sea trout will be out in force, a once-a-year phenomenon that will be a wonder to behold. She is not sure she wants to go.
Blackout. We see the man calling the police to report a missing person. But then we hear a woman’s voice – she’s not missing after all; false alarm – but the woman who then appears on stage is, as it says in the program, The Other Woman (Laura Donnelly), and, when the man asks her what happened to her, she explains that, when they went out to fish at night, she lost track of him, and went wandering, and ran into another fisherman, who helped her catch a big trout. She gives the man the trout. He begins to prepare it for cooking. The Other Woman (Donnelly) then goes offstage into the bedroom, and it is The Woman (Jumbo) who returns.
And so it goes, for the 85 minutes of the play, alternating scenes of the man with the woman and then with the other woman. Not much happens. Some moments are repeated; both the woman and the other woman, for example, talk about a robin that got caught in the cabin. The characters talk a lot about fishing, and about love, so that one suspects the playwright is using one as a metaphor for the other. The man tells the woman (or was it the other woman?) that he has never invited any other woman to his cabin, that he vowed only to invite his one true love there – that if he ever invited any woman afterwards, his love for her would be a lie. Both women talk of a sketch they’ve discovered in the cabin of another woman in a red dress.
“The River” is darkly lit, atmospheric, best thought of as a stage poem (the characters often speak as if reciting a poem, and actually recite a few), or a puzzle embedded with clues, with the slightest of payoffs at the end. For those with little tolerance for ambiguity or obscurity, it’s a lot of hooey. For fans of Hugh Jackman, it’s a chance to see him in the flesh, gutting and then cooking a trout.
Circle in the Square Theater
By Jez Butterworth
Ian Rickson (Direction), Ultz (Scenic and Costume Design), Charles Balfour (Lighting Design), Ian Dickinson for Autograph (Sound Design), Stephen Warbeck (Music)
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Laura Donnelly, Cush Jumbo
Tickets: $35 – $175
Running time: 85 minutes with no intermission
The River is scheduled to run through January 25, 2015