Where: Strawdog Theatre Company,
1802 W. Berenice Ave.
When: through Feb. 15
By ANNE SPISELMAN
Thirst” pours a lot of contemporary themes into a post-apocalyptic vision of the future, but C.A. Johnson’s 90-minute dystopian drama doesn’t live up to its setup.
Confusing plot points, poorly motivated characters, and repetitive dialogue are among the problems with the script. Strawdog Theatre Company’s Midwest premiere, directed by Andrea J. Dymond, suffers from uneven pacing that robs it of needed tension, and the generally strong acting can’t compensate for the other shortcomings.
Framed as a memory play narrated by a little boy named Kalil (played by 12-year-old Saniyah As-Salaam), “Thirst” takes place somewhere in the south at some unspecified time in the future. In what was apparently a racially motivated war, bombs have fallen, people have starved, and water is in very short supply.
The winning warlord, Terrance (Gregory J. Fields), who is African American, is also known as the “King” and “Well-Man” because he has control of the only well in the area. Attended by his brother Bankhead (Johnard Washington) and sidekick Coolie (Tamarus Harvell), he’s preparing for a parade honoring the one-year anniversary of the ironically dubbed “Peace Day.”
Before we’re introduced to the male thugs, however, we meet Kalil’s adoptive mothers, who are living with him in a clearing in the woods. Samira (Tracie Taylor), who does the cooking and carries a rifle she knows how to use, turns out to be Terrance’s ex-wife, though she loathes the mere mention of him. Her lover and now-wife Greta (Laura Resenger) works various jobs all day to barter for food and other essentials. Making their relationship more fraught to the outside world, Samira is black, and Greta is white.
They’re a loving family, and Kalil—who gets plenty of affection and parenting—seems to adore his mamas equally, though otherwise he’s a “follower” like so many children and sees white people as bad. The crisis on this particular day, however, is that Terrance has cut off the trio’s water supply and Kalil, much as the men guarding the well like him, has returned empty handed.
What Terrance wants is for Samira to come back to him, and he figures that depriving her and hers of water will somehow do the trick, or at least get her to talk to him. Virtually everything that happens stems from his misguided possessiveness, starting with the fights he has with Bankhead and Coolie and the arguments between Samira and Greta and ending in a senseless tragedy.
Along the way, we learn that Terrance has serious anger management and impulse control issues and that Greta’s childhood jealousy has extended into adulthood, making her possessive of Samira, too. We also find out Samira’s back story and why she hates Terrance so much.
But her behavior doesn’t really make sense. Although Greta practically begs her to go talk to Terrance—or explain why she won’t—Samira refuses to do either and is willing to put the woman she loves at mortal risk instead. Greta, seeing herself as the one who takes care of things, rises to the occasion, but it’s pretty clear that this is not a good idea, and Samira only relents in the face of disaster.
Without giving too much away, I was left somewhat in the dark about the doctor’s refusal to help Kalil, and what actually happens to Terrance. Although Kalil asks near the end if Bankhead is sad because Well-Man is dead, this crucial event is never shown or described—unless I missed something.
Bandhead, a voice of reason in a world of extremes, comes across as the only decent character, and Washington does a fine job of bringing him to life. Fields makes Terrance believably scary, and although his insecurity comes through a bit, it’s not enough to explain why Samira married him in the first place. Taylor and Resinger are fine as Samira and Greta, but their marriage isn’t completely convincing either. As-Salaam gets high marks for carrying so much of the narrative on her small shoulders (yes, she’s a girl).
Evan Frank’s minimalist scenic design does a better job of depicting Terrance’s office than a clearing in the woods, which is equipped with an outdoor brick fireplace and the front of a wooden shack with bunches of herbs hung out to dry. Jos N. Banks’ costumes are straightforward, except for Samira’s much-torn, multilayered dress.
I can’t quite decide if “Thirst” benefits from Strawdog’s intimate space, which imposes a lot of limitations on the staging. In any case, it’s the company’s last show in the Berenice Ave. building, which is being redeveloped. The next one will be at Filament Theatre on Milwaukee Ave. in April.