The River Valeo
nytheatre.com review by Danny Bowes
August 15, 2010
Trey Tatum's The River Valeo is a difficult play to criticize, as it is so richly sincere that one feels a bit of a Scrooge poking holes in it. So, before going any further, it must be stated that the audience loved the show, applauding the cast at great length and volume; leaving the theatre, one woman turned to another and said, "Such a great show," to which the reply was "I know!" Clearly, The River Valeo is a piece capable of touching a nerve in audiences.
The protagonist of the piece, Valerie, returns to her hometown 15 years after the construction of a dam by the Tennessee Valley Authority has submerged it beneath an artificial lake. The TVA has drained the lake, and Valerie convinces her old friend Hiccup—now working for the TVA—to sneak her into the former town so that she can inter her mother's ashes in the old family home. However, the plot thickens when who should walk into the room as Valerie is fumbling for the proper eulogy but . . . her mother!
Valerie is, naturally, taken a bit aback, considering that her mother committed suicide many years hence. Valerie's brother Edward, whose death in a tragic accident was one of the main contributing factors in her mother's suicide, also makes an appearance. With the family all met, they proceed to talk through many long-suppressed issues. Will they eventually find understanding and closure? Will Valerie manage to extricate herself from this Southern Gothic melodrama/ghost story in the half hour Hiccup has allotted her, since the TVA is planning on re-flooding the lake posthaste?
Tatum's premise and setting are potentially interesting, and he certainly cannot be faulted for lack of sincerity (nor can the cast, who give their all), but the construction of the play itself is, to put it mildly, labored. Characters converse in monologues that seem more like recitations of the playwright's note on the characters' back stories than they do communication, with exposition coming in waves as impressive in size as those that flooded the town (and which contain many water metaphors). The verbal sparring between Valerie and her mother, similarly, is more of a straw (wo)man debate wherein the daughter who just wanted to be allowed to live her life triumphs over the suffocating, despotic matriarch than it is conversation.
The actors, particularly Amber Quick as Valerie, are very energetic and clearly—much to their credit—"mean it" just as powerfully as does the playwright. Director Bridget Leak, though, does little to help the pace and rhythm of an already slow-paced play, staging every scene save the one where Edward and Valerie move a table and some chairs in an almost completely static fashion. This is not to say that having the actors jump around like idiots would have been a better option, but a happy medium between the two extremes might have contributed a more compelling visual aspect to a play that centers—to the degree that it is about a flood—on motion.
Still, do remember that all the above criticism should be taken with the caveat that many in the audience clearly did not find these same faults with The River Valeo. Occasionally critical disagreement foretells an important, interesting work of art, and it is for that reason that despite my own issues with the show, I do recommend seeing The River Valeo so that you can decide for yourself. I am fully willing to admit that I might be wrong.