KATHERINE SHELTON | STAFF REPORTER
The Phoenix Theatre is a small venue, 13 minutes away from Butler University’s campus.
I came to see “River City,” a production directed by Dale McFadden.
Because of the setup, the space felt cozy, intimate and homey. For some, this environment could make the audience feel crowded, as if their personal space is being invaded. You practically have the stage sitting in your lap.
The traditional seating provided in the back of the house is limited, so I sat at one of the many round cafe tables away from the stage.
Diana Grisanti’s play “River City” tells two separate stories, using location and family as themes. Mary, the young mother-to-be, is devastated by the passing of her father, a man she knew little about.
Her guilt inspires a search for him and, in direct consequence, a search of her own identity. Mary’s journey is one about self-discovery and the illumination of the past. Throughout the story, the audience is able to learn about both the young girl and her father.
The Phoenix Theatre is known to produce plays that spur criticism and shock. Its aim is to contribute to the national dialogue through the lens of art.
“River City” is no exception to this trend.
The film “Selma,” a retelling of Martin Luther King, Jr., and his fight for civil rights is another example of art that is meant to inspire debate.
The play draws the audience in with a somewhat archetypal plot and then sends jolts through the audience. The controversies outlined in “River City” directly parallel those we deal with today.
Like any good play, the questions at hand are not explicitly answered, but merely posed. “River City” is well-written because it allows the viewer to draw their own conclusions.
The Phoenix Theatre’s production of this play, however, left much to be desired.
This rendition featured actors Kayla Carter, Julie Dixon, Matt Herndon, Mauricio Miranda, A.J. Morrison and Ren Rose.
The actors, as a whole, seemed to have a tangible disconnect from each other.
Emotional monologues were often delivered well, yet they put up a sort of barrier between each other that detracted from the performance.
Rose was the strongest actor in my opinion, because he was most believable. The other actors went through the motions for the most part.
It was clear that certain pivotal moments, specifically in the second act, were worked and rehearsed profusely to give the good punch the climaxes needed: These moments were critically effective.
However, all it led me to believe is that the whole process, every scene, could have used that attention to make it feel more believable as a whole.
The intimate nature of the theater space made it impossible to miss the lack of connection that ran throughout most of the production.
They did the best they could with the limited amount of stage available and the multiple settings necessary for the plot.
Although there were some awkward placements with blocking and some lights illuminated a part of the set meant to be hidden, the overall atmosphere allowed for the audience to suspend disbelief for the benefit of the story.
The script was impressive, nonetheless. The characters were well-developed and multi-dimensional to complement the plot.
The Phoenix was not afraid of placing a controversial character right in front of a full-house audience, which only added to the performance.
The error, however, was in the execution, and it was enough to turn viewers such as myself away.
That being said, the moments of power were strong enough to draw tears out of the eyes of fellow audience members, who afterwards remarked the profound relatability.
I would say without hesitation that this is an important play for all of us to see. Although I did not love the final product, the play may spur something in others. Some will learn a great deal about how they interact after viewing this play.
If only the theater could have kept this one in the oven just a little bit longer before sending it out to all of us, it might have been earth-shattering.
This play was so close to being the cliched “five stars” for me.
“River City” runs through Feb. 1.
Purchase tickets at phoenixtheatre.org or call their box office at 317-635-7529. General admission is $35, with reduced prices at $22 for audience members 21 and under. Shows run on Thursdays at 7 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m.