Theatre on Fire’s production of "Vincent River" is a harrowing journey through the stages of grief, excavating carefully through layers of guilt and regret to arrive, degree by degree, at truths both painful and necessary to hear. This play is the first in a new "Home Invasion" series, where the company brings theater home to the people rather than insisting that the audience attend at an auditorium. All the company needs to create an hour and forty-five minutes of indelible theater are two actors, a handful of props, and a private residence.
As it happens, that last part is crucial to the experience. The play takes its viewers into private pain, barbed with lingering prejudices, and the way the story unfolds--as an ever-deepening conversation between a bereaved mother and the young man, almost still a boy, who found her son’s dead body after he was killed by homophobic thugs--demands an intimate setting. Director Darren Evans knows how to make us comfortable in someone else’s home, but he also knows how to shake us out of our complacent convictions about what theater is and ought to be.
Anita (Kelly Rauch) is the 45-year-old, never-married mother whose son, Vincent, has been murdered by a gang of five ruthlessly violent youths in a rough part of London. It’s about four and a half months after Vincent’s death when the play opens. Anita, having been driven from her former home (a public housing project in Bethnal Green, which has a reputation as a tough neighborhood), is still settling into her new home and the new life that goes with it.
But the past is not so easy to lay to rest. Anita is tormented by unanswered questions: How could she not have realized that her son was gay? What, exactly, did the homophobic killers do to him? To get answers, Anita invites Davey (Andres Rey Solorzano) into her flat and subjects him to a barrage of questions: What did he see? Why was he hanging around a disused public restroom anyway? Did he kill her son? Did he see those who did?
Davey offers a story that Anita doesn’t quite believe: He was cutting through the area with his fiancée after their engagement party when he stumbled across Vincent’s savagely beaten, almost mutilated, corpse. Does his story make sense? Does Davey know more than he is telling? To get him to open up, Anita offers Davey a quid pro quo: she will tell him about herself if he will reciprocate. As the two work on one another, sharing their life stories and their most private anguish, secret after secret comes to light in a fascinating and troubling skein of carefully knit revelations.
When I saw the play, the performance space was an apartment not far from Andrew Square. One of the residents, upon hearing that there would be no intermission, took a last-minute opportunity to head to the restroom: "I’m going to go rummage through my own medicine cabinet," she chirped, to the room’s laughter. (You’re not going to have a moment like that at the Charleston Working Theater, which is where Theatre on Fire stages most of its work.) And it was a small room: Only about 15 people would fit into the space.
That kind of intimacy makes it hard to recoup the cost of a play, but focuses the emotional intensity of the experience to an unforgettable pitch. Rauch has the kind of face that is ageless: She can appear to be Vincent’s middle-aged mother; she could just as easily portray a carefree teenager. Here, it’s her body language as much as her facial cast that defines the character, a mother who swills gin from antique teacups because all life has left to her are odds and ends.
Solorzano’s performance as the antsy, highly flappable Davey, is right where it needs to be: On the edge. Davey carries a bottle of assorted pills around with him, drugs he’s pilfered from his cancer-stricken mother. With her recent death, Davey, too, is cast adrift. As these two lost souls swap booze and tablets and tease out one another’s most closely guarded stories, they forge a bond that crackles in the intimate confines of the borrowed performance space.
The script’s tone is one that mixes simplicity and complication, sincerity and indirect expression. There’s no mistaking the characters’ raw sorrow and regret, though, and the basic nature of the performance underscores this. There’s no artful lighting here, no meticulous sound design, no artifice of set; just a couple of gin bottles, some simple and effective costuming, and accents that sidestep the clipped polish of posh London, sticking to the street level with the broad, ashy voices of the downtrodden and hardscrabble. (The play is from English writer Philip Ridley and this production respects its origins.) The result is shattering--and extraordinary.
"Vincent River" will be playing at private residences around Boston throughout the month of April. For ticketing and venue information, please visit www.theatreonfire.org