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Romulus Linney's luminous, compassionate, and redemptive new play, now receiving its world premiere at Manbites Dog Theater, is that rare bird: a solo turn as full-bodied, complex, and dynamic as the finest multi-character drama. Silver River, a stunningly crafted monodrama adapted by Linney from two sources, both his own (his novel Slowly, By the Hand Unfurled and a previous play, A Woman Without a Name), provides the great Christine Morris a superb vehicle in which to exhibit the full range of her seemingly illimitable brilliance.
Linney triumphs over the primary danger inherent in one-person plays — allowing us to see only one side of a character or situation — in the very means by which the unnamed Woman of the piece communicates and through which she will grow as a woman and a human being: through the use of a ledger book pressed into service as a personal journal. A Woman Without a Name brought each of the characters in the Woman's life onstage, albeit in a highly theatrical fashion; in Silver River the Woman becomes each of the dramatis personae in turn as she writes down the dialogue in which they engage her. In this way, the audience is aware of the conflicts surrounding the Woman without the filter of personal agenda. The character is too artless to censor the conversations she records: the observations are hers, the words their owners', and it is up to us to divine the truth — or, at any rate, attempt to.
To speak to the specifics of the Woman's journey would be to give too much of the game away. At the core of her story is a mystery, masterfully set out in the first act, the solution to which drives the second and shatters all preconceived notions we may entertain of guilt, innocence, or the thin line between commission and omission. Do not imagine, however, that Silver River is anything so trite as a mere mystery story. Linney is concerned here with some of the profoundest notions of the last century, and this one: motherhood, sensuality, the dissolution of familial ties, the social position of women in the wider spheres of influence, the grace that accompanies forgiveness, and the personal struggle to break free of accepted bounds for the sake of one's own, tortured, soul.
Yet the play is no polemic. It is, rather, a robust portrait of an exceptional woman on her way to self-enlightenment. That the son who will eventually turn on her in the gravest imaginable fashion gives to her the instruments of her own education is one of Linney's keenest dramatic ironies, one that — as with the finest dramatists — he leaves the audience to recognize. And if there is more than a touch of O'Neill's similarly haunted Tyrones in the time of the action (ca. 1900), in the Woman's male off-spring (the youngest son contracts TB, the elder succumbs to drink), and in their relation to her, this may be more in the nature of an hommage. Certainly it doesn't feel "borrowed" in this context; Linney's characters, even embodied by a single actor, breathe their own complicated air.
Under Jeff Storer's simple, yet inspired direction, Christine Morris gives the sort of performance that you recall when everything else has fallen away. I do not think it hubris to suggest that what you will witness on the stage of Manbites Dog has the aura of singular greatness that people still feel in recalling Laurette Taylor's Amanda in The Glass Menagerie. Morris's work here is portraiture of the richest kind. She gives us not merely the Woman, but an entire community, slipping into various personalities as effortlessly as most of us might don an old familiar jacket. This is a performance of such complete honesty that it becomes something beyond acting. Morris soars in every particular, especially in Linney's climactic gesture, a bold theatrical metaphor given flesh and sinew in writing, staging, and performance. You hold your breath, wondering if it can possibly work. It does. Magnificently. Like Underneath the Lintel, Silver River feeds the mind, the heart, and the soul.
Jan Chambers's scenic design is spare yet rich and her costumes apt even if the black mourning dress is a tick ill fitting. Sam Piperato has composed some elegiac original music that matches and reflects the reach and compassion of the playwright's work.
This production will head to Portland in May. I hope it goes much further. It deserves to be seen, and with Christine Morris at its radiant center. Miss it now, and regret it forever after.
Second Opinion: Raleigh, NC News & Observer staff writer Orla Swift's Feb. 13 preview: http://newsobserver.com/features/story/3328020p-2966110c.html [inactive 5/04]; N&O correspondent Adam Sobsey's Feb. 18 review: http://www.triangle.com/calendar/theaterreview/story/1004671p-7011207c.html; and Alan R. Hall's Front Row Center Feb. 18 review: http://hometown.aol.com/theonlyarhall/reviews.html.
Manbites Dog Theater presents Silver River Wednesday-Saturday, Feb. 18-21 and 25-28, at 8:15 p.m. and Sunday, Feb. 22, at 3:15 p.m. at 703 Foster St., Durham, North Carolina. $10 Wednesday-Thursday and $15 Friday-Sunday. 919/682-3343. Silver River: http://www.manbitesdogtheater.org/74 and http://www.profiletheatre.org/silverriver.html [inactive 6/04].