Unappealing protagonists sink ‘Separation Rapid’ at Chenango River Theatre

Reviewed by George Basler

I wish I could say I liked Separation Rapid, which is getting its world premiere at the Chenango River Theatre in Greene. Unfortunately, I can’t.

The professional, non-profit theater company should be given credit for taking the risk of mounting a new work. And the staging is extremely creative in spots as director and set designer Bill Lelbach (who is also CRT’s artistic director) recreates a 20-foot,wooden boat careening down the mighty Colorado River.

However, the play itself by Susan Arnout Smith — an acclaimed playwright, novelist, television screenwriter and National Public Radio essayist — is muddy, confusing and fails to translate an intriguing concept into satisfying drama.

The story, which is based on real events and real people, certainly seems promising. The main characters are newlyweds Bessie Hyde, a bohemian artist, and Glen Hyde, an Idaho potato farmer, who set out in 1928  in a flat-bottomed, wooden boat built by Glen out of scrap lumber to attempt the fastest trip ever down the Colorado River. They hoped the journey would lift them from their humdrum lives and make them celebrities and attractions on the vaudeville circuit. But they disappeared en route and, despite an intensive search, were never found. Rescuers only discovered the couple’s food, Bessie’s journal, a guidebook, a gun, clothing, box springs and boots.

Separation Rapid deals with how the couple met, their interaction on the river and the mystery of what happened to them.

The production has definite positive features. Lelbach did a first-rate job as set designer in replicating the Colorado River and the boat’s journey. To do it, Lelbach built a replica of the boat  that moves and rocks as though on rapids. Top-notch work also was done by Julie Duro, lighting designer, and Barbara Kahl, costume designer. Special credit should go to Marc Rose of MJR Soundesign for the sound design that is haunting and eerie, fitting the mood of the play.

Smith’s play, though, never catches fire. One problem is the characters themselves. To be successful, Separation Rapid has to make you care about the doomed couple. But the Hydes left me cold despite the best efforts of Kate Hamill and Dan Sanders-Joyce.

Bessie, as portrayed by Hamill, is whinny and neurotic. Sanders-Joyce catches the external strength of Glen, but what makes him tick remains murky. Separation Rapid tries to convey the emotional desperation that drives the couple. But, rather than tragic characters meeting a dark fate, they come across as bickering, annoying newlyweds who you don’t want to be around. They are pretty much the same at the end of play as at the beginning. By the time Bessie and Glen meet their ultimate fate, I could have cared less.

As Gertrude Stein once said, “There’s no there, there.”

Another element in the play that really made my teeth ache is the magical realism that Smith mixes into the play. This comes in the form of an Indian spirit, played by Domenica Galati, who shows up periodically to spout cryptic warnings. The character reminded me of the old commercial, “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature”. Or maybe, the spirit was meant to represent the paranoia inside Bessie’s head. In any case, it doesn’t work.

The play’s ending also comes way out of left field when Glen undergoes a jarring personality change. Or maybe he doesn’t. I was confused. Then again, I really didn’t care by that point.

Before finishing, I should mention the performance of David Wirth in the small role of a storekeeper, Emery Kolb, who tries to warn Bessie before it’s too late. Wirth is very commanding in the role, and his scene got me emotionally involved in Separation Rapid. Unfortunately, he’s off the stage pretty quickly.

The Chenango River Theatre is a real local treasure. I’ve seen some excellent productions there over the years. The company should be applauded for trying to push the envelope.  In the end, though, Separation Rapid is an ambitious attempt that just didn’t work for me.

Separation Rapid will run through Aug. 5. Performances are 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sunday. The theater is located at 991 State Highway 12, just south of Greene. For ticket information, visit www.chenangorivertheatre.org or call (607) 656-8499. Tickets are $19 for Thursdays, $21 Fridays, $22 Saturdays and $20 Sundays.

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