Pittsburgh Post-Gazette – On its base level, “The River” is about a sports fanatic — in this case, fly fishing — whose passions don’t translate well with women.
In Quantum Theatre’s striking production of the Jez Butterworth play, the first sign that things may not be that obvious is a chasm in the floor beneath the feet of a nameless man (Andrew William Smith) and woman (Daina Michelle Griffith). They have come to his cabin in the woods to commune with nature, catch some sea trout and perhaps take their relationship to the next level.
There are other hints of a division in the relationship. The man seems desperate to get the reluctant woman to go fishing with him. Their tug-of-war grows tense as he tries the Ted Hughes poem “After Moonless Midnight” as a lure. This poem includes the lines: “The whole river / Listened to me, and, blind, / Invisibly watched me. And held me deeper / With its blind, invisible hands.”
In the next scene, he is frantic, calling the police to say the woman has gone missing by the river. He hears her outside and hangs up with great relief. Then another woman (Siovhan Christensen) enters, with the story line continuing to play out but with repeated references, one about a robin who found its way inside the cabin.
This is not Field & Stream meets “Groundhog Day,” although there are elements of both embedded in the story. The playwright (“Jerusalem”) and screenwriter (“Black Mass”; “Edge of Tomorrow”) Butterworth parses out bits of information as he goes, building toward the edge-of-the-seat anticipation of: Who will walk through the door next?
To say much more is to give too much away.
Mr. Smith, a Carnegie Mellon University acting teacher and a newcomer to Pittsburgh’s theater scene, embodies a man who is more at home gutting a fish than wooing a woman. The scene in which he “dresses” a fish is ritualistic, performed by a man comfortable with a knife and nature.
Ms. Griffith and Ms. Christensen are busy local actors on stage and screen for a reason — Ms. Griffith can be seen as Ricki in the TV series “Outsiders” and Ms. Christensen, a rehearsal actor during the filming of “Fences” here, will appear in an episode of “Outsiders” and the film “American Pastoral.”
Each woman is seen alone with the man in his inner sanctum as they catch on to disturbing facets of his inner nature. They become more guarded and accusatory as they move into and out of our frame of reference.
To put “The River” in its natural habitat, Quantum has landed on the shores of the Allegheny, dockside in a structure transformed by set designer Britton Mauk. The audience enters into a pleasant parlor and can enjoy boxed dinners and sunsets from a porch along the water before entering the staging area, where the audience faces the interior of a comfy cabin with modern conveniences. The cabin boasts windows with a view, and the floor is split by a waterway that ebbs and flows through an upstage door, toward the Allegheny in the distance.
Water’s ability to give us sustenance, to separate people and reflect their images, to intimidate and inspire devotion, are all part of the ebb and flow of the play. In the shadow of the river, the characters spar about trust issues and the nature of love, leading to a growing list of questions:
Can the man translate his passion for fishing into human connection? Is he doomed to repeat his failures in a never-ending loop? Has he broken with reality all together?
Don’t expect any explicit answers in a play that says a lot in a little more than an hour. Instead, sit back and ponder while enjoying the view.