Mud, River, Stone
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Eclipse Theatre Company at Athenaeum Theatre. By Lynn Nottage. Directed by Andrea J. Dymond. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs; one intermission.
Theater review by Benno Nelson
Capping off Eclipse Theatre Company’s season of the plays of Lynn Nottage, this relatively light-hearted 1997 drama is initially framed as a good-natured vacation story. The Bradleys, a stylish and successful African-American couple, recount for friends at home an epic trip to Africa in search of their roots and a little adventure. A wrong turn and a rainstorm strand Sarah (AnJi White), a type A investment banker, and David (Robert Hardaway), a laid-back but influential music critic, in a relic of a colonial hotel in the jungle of an unnamed African country. The only other guest in the hotel is a mysterious white businessman (Zach Bloomfield), proud of his colonial lineage (his uncle “built” this hotel) and quick to declare himself an African by birth. They are joined by a Belgian dilettante convinced of his own pious understanding of “tribal” life, and a sweet but tough Nigerian aid worker from a local mission.
As they wait out the rain, these people—each with a personal claim to African authenticity despite a distinct air of privileged otherness—struggle to navigate even their short time together. Probably the most interesting verbal game in the play is the way individuals try addressing each other as “brother” or “sister”, how this offered fellowship is accepted or rejected, and which grounds—racial, ethnic, emotional—are used to form that decision.
When the hotel’s bellhop (Anthony Conway), a former child soldier on the winning side of a recent civil war and the only unimpugnable local, takes the group hostage, the play should kick into high gear. Instead, the solipsistic dialogue in the face of this pressure only highlights the structural and logical fragility of the play. Despite Andrea J. Dymond’s best efforts to keep the urgency pounding through the second act, the increasingly trivial character revelations—the Bradleys, for instance, argue about money—weigh the show down tremendously.
As an opportunity for handsome acting of clear perspectives, Mud, River, Stone works. The strong cast is universally convincing and precise, managing to humanize even the thinnest and most unsympathetic characters. For the thinnest, we have an international aid rep who arrives late, says little, and accomplishes nothing. Delia Baseman manages to give her somehow both a comic aloofness and a frustration with her own inefficacy, keeping the caricature from becoming a cartoon.
By the end of the play, however, this focus and honesty has left us with little other than a stage full of recognizable but largely unlikeable people (Elana Elyce’s Ama is the notable exception). That high-spirited opening in which the Bradleys recount what they’ve seen seems so callous on reflection it’s almost sociopathic. If it’s meant to be a deeply cynical romp on the human capacity to fail to learn from experience, then, the play could use a few more daggers. As a drama of the politics of contemporary Africa, the most salient and tragic point the play leaves us with is the casual indifference it presents.