If you ask me…

TheaterWorks of Hartford

“This Bitter Earth”

By Tom Holehan
Connecticut Critics Circle

TheaterWorks of Hartford, which managed to struggle through the pandemic with a variety of innovated theatre programming, is currently back to live performances in their beautifully renovated space.  Now on the boards is Harrison David Rivers’ contemporary romantic drama, “This Bitter Earth”.

Taking place over three years (2012-15) in both New York City and St. Paul, “This Bitter Earth” introduces gay couple Jesse (Damian Thompson) a quiet theatre teacher and Neil (Tom Holcomb) a white activist for “Black Lives Matter”.  The initial premise is intriguing as it is Neil trying to convince Jesse to become more involved in racial politics.  The play covers many of the major protests of the period (Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown) and with each event Neil becomes more frustrated by what he sees as Jesse’s political apathy.

Since it jumps back and forth in time for no real purpose that I could understand, we do know the play’s grim outcome fairly early in the game and it’s unfortunate that Rivers’ original premise takes a back seat to speechifying and familiar domestic arguments.  When, at last, Jesse takes a stand it seems anticlimactic and unbelievable given his previous stance to the various horrors of American racial strife that have been depicted.

The play may let its terrific actors down, but both are in fine form and good hands here under the sensitive direction of David Mendizabal.  The men share an easy chemistry and the intimate scenes have passion and sensuality (there is some brief, shadowy nudity) that makes you believe and care about this relationship.

If Thompson seems to be trying harder and pushing at times, it’s probably because Rivers’ script has backed him into a corner.  And, though he does a nice job with a long and sad ending monologue, I ultimately felt I was supposed to be more moved than I actually was.

Set designer Riw Rakkulchon’s handsome bedroom setting leaves room downstage for various other scenes, but it really does not suggest Jesse’s artistic personality. Devario D. Simmons is kept busy with a costume design that covers three years and many costume changes.  Christina Watanabe’s expert lighting design is a marvel of ingenuity flashing back to disco days, protest marches and the present with ease.  In the relatively new position (since #METOO) of Intimacy Director, Rocio Mendez has obviously made his actors very comfortable in the few lovemaking scenes.

“This Bitter Earth” gets its title from the poem by Jalalbad and was also transferred to song and recorded by Dinah Washington in 1960.  The play continues at TheaterWorks, 233 Pearl Street in Hartford through March 20th. For further information visit: www.theaterworkshartford.org or call the theatre box office: 860.527.7838.  Patrons are required to wear masks and show proof of vaccination and photo I.D. at the door.

Tom Holehan is one of the founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and the Stratford Crier and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: tholehan@yahoo.com. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.

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