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Playwright opens heart with ‘River Plays’



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Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

Early in “The Trinity River Plays,” the ambitious, bravely revealing trilogy by Regina Taylor that opened Sunday at the Goodman Theatre, the playwright’s smart but geeky 17-year-old alter ego Iris complains that her high school English teacher gave her a less-than-perfect grade on a piece of writing and advised her to “find her voice.”

It has taken Taylor herself a good many years to do just that. But in tone, dialogue, characterization and clarity, this trio of interlocking plays — “Jar Fly,” “Rain” and Ghoststory” — mark a real breakthrough.

Instead of the often opaque or chokingly politically correct work of seasons past (from “Drowning Crow” to “Magnolia”), this three-hour trilogy, which is clearly more than a little autobiographical, gives us a revealing, deeply intimate, “hang out the dirty laundry” look at crucial aspects of Taylor’s past. In the process, she seems to have liberated herself as a writer and discovered a far more direct, accessible, overtly emotional way into her audience’s heart.

Set in a split-level home with a flower-power garden, in what appears to be a middle-class black neighborhood of Dallas (much like the one where Taylor grew up), “Trinity River” begins in 1978, as Iris (played throughout by the ever-astonishing Karen Aldridge, whose emotional range and aura of truth are beyond measure) celebrates her 17th birthday.

Iris’ mother, Rose (Penny Johnson Jerald, whose transformation from radiant single mom to wasted ovarian cancer patient is exceptional), has gone to San Antonio for the summer to take courses . So Iris is being cared for by her sassy Aunt Daisy (the irrepressibly boisterous Jacqueline Williams), whose daughter Jasmine (the larger-than-life Christiana Clark), two years older than Iris, is a wild wannabe dancer-choreographer and high school dropout headed for alcoholism and dependency.

It is Ray Earl (the gifted Jefferson A. Russell), Daisy’s seemingly nice guy third husband and Jasmine’s step-dad, who is responsible for the traumatic, life-altering event that will leave permanent scars on Iris’ psyche and implant a lifetime of guilt in Jasmine. And in a family where silence, denial and “moving on” are the methods for dealing with life, that event, and much else about the family, will be utterly suppressed.

Fast forward 17 years to “Rain,” the strongest of the three plays. Iris, now a successful writer in New York, returns for a visit to Dallas after her marriage to Frank (Russell), a decent enough man but a rather boring intellectual, has ended. Met with the news that her mother is mortally ill, she decides to stay on as her caretaker, and the scenes of their final days together are heartrending.

“Ghoststory,” which plays out in the wake of Rose’s death, is an attempt to resolve all that has festered for so many years, with Iris’ vision of her mother, along with Daisy, Jasmine, Frank and even her teenage crush Jack (Samuel Ray Gates) on hand.

Although the two bookend plays are not as strong as the centerpiece, “Rain,” they get the essential work done. And while some judicious trimming would bolster the trilogy, director Ethan McSweeney and his fine cast keep you invested in Taylor’s fevered reality.

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