Still the River Runs
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
June 20, 2008
In Barton Bishop's new drama Still the River Runs, two brothers decide to steal their grandfather's corpse out of the coffin and then journey with it through an eventful night so they can bury it in the woods. The older brother, Jesse, is some kind of cowboy in Central Florida. The younger, Wyatt, is serving in the army in Iraq. Their journey together is supposed to be revelatory and life-changing (and, in its way, is). It's also meant to be an exhilarating adventure, and it is fitfully funny and entertaining and involving. It turns out, ultimately, to be a sort of anti-war play; these sentiments, when finally communicated, prove to be too little too late to give the piece much weight, however.
Still the River Runs just doesn't work. Bishop's hand is all over the thing, much too heavily: nearly every line of dialogue feels written, as opposed to organically like something a person might actually say. Bishop's work is redolent of Tennessee Williams and Sam Shepard, and more contemporaneously, Kelly McAllister and Robert Attenweiler; the language is frequently gorgeous and interesting, something you'd like to read and re-read and savor. On stage, though, it almost never rings true.
Neither, sadly, do the two characters. I think Bishop intends his play to be magic realism, with time not really moving at the normal rate and events not necessarily occurring naturalistically or even always making sense. But he's saddled these brothers—especially Jesse—with all sorts of baggage and back story, so much so that I kept wondering, as the pair wrangle their "Paw-Paw"'s lifeless body through a swamp in the middle of the night, why Jesse's wife or both men's father isn't searching for them. I also found myself concerned about Jesse and Wyatt's apparent lack of respect for a dead man and his family: why would two grandsons decide they know best what to do with their grandfather's remains, especially when the grandfather's two sons are still very much alive?
Jaron Farnham plays Jesse, the older brother; Steve French plays Wyatt, the younger. French seems significantly older, however, which is confusing. Both seem much older than the ages given in the script for these young men (24 and 22, respectively). I bring this up because the acquisition of a certain kind of maturity and wisdom is the main thrust of the brothers' journey; if they seem mature and set in their ways, as they do here, some of the potency of the piece dissipates.
Director Matthew J. Nichols keeps the show moving briskly, and uses the unit set by Tim McMath, which superimposes suggestive elements from the various locales in the story onto a single design, shrewdly and ingeniously. Bishop employs a device whereby each of the play's 17 scenes has a title (taken from dialogue spoken in the scene, which makes us wait for it, every time). The titles are displayed on placards that are placed onstage during the transitions by one of the actors. This has the effect of pulling the actors out of the story 16 times. At first I thought a meta-theatricality might be intended, but as the play proceeded I realized this was just a clumsy solution to a problem that probably didn't even need to be there: the titles only underline the literary, as opposed to theatrical, style of the piece.
Bishop has talent, clearly, and so does Nichols; Nichols's young company, Zootopia Theatre, is one to keep an eye on. But Still the River Runs is unfortunately a disappointment.