note: entire contents copyright 2011 by Sheila Barth
Before Will Fancher’s play starts, there’s a pervasive eeriness in “The River Was Whiskey”.
Rob Eastman-Mullins’ shabby set, webbed in grisly gray, and Mary Eleanor Stebbins’ dingy, dark lighting, are even more dismal, accented by David Wilson’s perpetual rainfall. Suddenly, from the outside, two hands frame a window, opening it, and a slender black youth, dressed in denim overalls, slithers through. He’s like a wild animal, jumping around on the shabby furniture, desperately searching for food. When he’s confronted by the shack’s owner, white former pastor-World War II hero, Everett Evans, (who says he comes from a long line of preachers-soldiers ). The uninvited angry youth sneers, replying he knows who Evans and his father are. Gleefully, he tears out and rumples pages of the Bible, tossing them around Evans’ kitchen. “I’m a little black shadow,” he taunts, gratingly calling Evans “Boss”.
Thus begins the plunge into the dark side of a small town in the Mississippi Delta in 1946, where the Christian folk religiously attend church, but segregate blacks on the “other side” of Bradford Street - to their own church.
The town survived a devastating flood in 1927, when workers constructed a levee to hold back the river’s historic rising waters. Large banks of sandbags lie around the stage as the action flashes back and forth from 1946 to 1927.
Listening to conversation between the wild boy, who says he has no home or family, but lives along the water, and Evans, a reformed alcoholic and fallen pastor who wants to someday build his own church, we’re increasingly aware of something more sinister, more cryptic, in this sleepy, divided town of Moonlight - which Evans’ family named. Evans admits to the Boy that the Christians in town aren’t as benevolent as the Good Book indicates they’re supposed to be.
Kenard Jackson’s portrayal as the Boy, Arlo, is striking, riveting. His eyes are fiendish, devilish, his wiry body graceful, with sinuous, sneaky movements, yet monstrously frightening, with unpredictable, psychotic-like overtones.
He’s spellbinding also to the other characters, manipulating, twisting young pastor-to-be Joe Lily, who easily buckles under, aware that everyone thinks he’s weak. Alex Pollock as Joe Lily is captivating, especially when he evolves from his meek milquetoast demeanor to a horrifying personality under the Boy’s diabolical influence.
The Boy hates dogs, he says. Somebody has been killing scores of dogs, slicing them open, and a group of white vigilantes, knowing a black boy has done the deed, have crossed the line to the “other” side of Bradford Street. “Moonlight outrage,” the townsfolk call it.
Meanwhile, darker secrets emerge. Evans, who has loved and yearned for his former girlfriend, Nettie, hopes to win her back from her preacher husband. And Nettie has never stopped loving Evans. Sarah Newhouse as Nettie provides insight and balance as a do-good, caring Southern Christian lady, but Jim Loutzenhiser as Evans gets tangled in effecting a Southern accent, diluting his role.
“The River Was Whiskey” is a powerful drama that remains in your craw, your psyche. You won’t listen to the gentle splash of raindrops or leave a window open again. You’ll also be grateful that times have changed...... or have they?
BOX INFO: Two-act, two-hour Southern gothic ghost drama, written by Will Fancher, with original accompanying music by Fancher and sound designer David Wilson, directed by Jim Petosa, appearing through Nov. 20 at Boston Playwrights Theatre, 949 Commonwealth Ave., Boston. Performances are Thursdays at 7:30 p.m.; Fridays, Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m. Reserved seats are $30; seniors, $25; students with valid ID, $10. Call 866-811-4111 or visit bostonplaywrights.org.