The River Was Whiskey: Tension for the Senses

Joe Lily, Nettie and Arlo (Alex Pollock, Sarah Newhouse and Kendra Jackson)

The River Was Whiskey by Will Fancher, Boston Playwrights’ Theatre, 10/27/11-11/20/11,  Contains mature themes, mature language,  and violent images.

Reviewed by Anthony Geehan

(Boston, MA) There has been an ongoing moral debate since man was first able to form laws on what the fate of the guilty should be. One school of thought is that redemption is available through either the forgiveness of a higher power or acts of contrition. Then there are those who believe that there must be a punishment for every crime and that an eye for an eye is the only way to balance the damage done. There is possibly no greater example of this dichotomy of thought than Old and New Testaments of The Bible. While the New Testament speaks of forgiveness for all sins through the following of Jesus, The Old Testament is filled with the wicked being punished by a vengeful spirit for their transgressions. This backdrop of faith and fear is the foundation of the Will Fancher play The River Was Whiskey.

The River was Whiskey is a two act, two hour play based in 1940’s Mississippi shortly after the dropping of the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The small town of Moonlight, Mississippi, a racially segregated southern town, finds itself in the midst of a heavy, seemingly never ending rain storm, reminiscent of a storm that had caused a devastating flood twenty years prior. Within Moonlight lives the World War I hero turned drunken ex-preacher known as Evans (Jim Loutzenhiser). One night, during the second storm, a young and seemingly insane, unnamed black man (Kendra Jackson) breaks into Evan’s kitchen and begins destroying his house. When Evan’s confronts the feral intruder, he is told that he must burn down the church that stands in Moonlight in order to reclaim his birthright as the town’s preacher. From there, the young black man goes on to set a wave of insane and cruel actions upon the people of Moonlight, including Evan’s secret lover Nettie (Sarah Newhouse) as well as a young, somewhat spineless new preacher in training named Joe Lily (Alex Pollock). Through the ever building tension of the storm, Evan’s creeping alcoholism, and the constant, maddening presence of the young black terror, both Evans and the town of Moonlight are launched into the grip of a wrathful vengeance for crimes long since forgotten by everyone but the guilty and the victims.

The River was Whiskey is wrapped in the feeling of doom and insanity from the first scene. The play shows this, not so much by creating absurd situations, but by overloading the audience senses with primal, fear-inducing stimuli. This mainly comes from Jackson, who screams, stomps, and crashes his way through every scene he appears in while the other three actors are left to react to the madness and ground the audience in their discomfort. It can be said that Jackson’s acting and actions are a little over the top and at times laughable, but it also needs to be said this is a play that completely works for the ending from the first line, which justifies Jackson’s style and character completely.

The violence of the play is one of its main tools, in both the actual acts of gore as well as the aura of the characters. While Jackson has the most obvious role in perpetuating this, it is Loutzenhiser who is probably the best example of where the play’s visceral nature comes from. Playing a one-foot-off-the-wagon alcoholic and frustrated progressive surrounded by ignorance and bigotry, he is constantly towing a line between the voice of reason and the same madness that defines Jackson’s character. Newhouse and Pollack’s characters are there to be the recipients and consequences of this violence, enforcing the blunt nature of the play’s tone.

Visually, the set pieces give a depressed backdrop for the story. The two settings of Evan’s hand built shack and a sandbag levee stand front to back the entire play, with the shack representing the present narrative and the levee flashing back to twenty years ago to the first flood. A visual effect of rain water is constantly falling behind the stage to remind the audience of the ever looming threat of the flood. The play also includes a soundtrack of original Delta Blues material (written by Fancher) to give it more grounding in its southern setting.

It should be said that this is not a play to passively watch. From the beginning it is meant to make people feel uncomfortable and keeps you tense right through to the end. It is loud, violent, and extremely un-P.C; and these are things that it needs to be in order to properly tell its story. A combination of Old Testament dogma, Poe’s “The Raven”, and Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar all set to the paranoid beginnings of the nuclear age and the midst of America’s shameful error of segregation, The River Was Whiskey is a hard piece of haunting fiction. Anyone who is a fan of vengeance plays would be well advised to catch it while they can.

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