At the outset, Philip Ridley’s Vincent River doesn’t hint at the dark path it will traverse.
Sure, a moody 17-year-old stranger named Davey (Bobby Johnston) is sporting a sizeable shiner. But middle-aged Anita (Beverly Blanchette) seems rather cheery as she moves among the still-packed boxes in her new flat. Anita radiates the strength of a can-do British mum. Yet soon enough, jumpy, haunted Davey will — at her insistence — lead her through a nightmare memory.
Ridley’s 2000 play is the latest production from Miami’s Ground Up & Rising, a small company that does its edgy work at Artistic Vibes near The Falls shopping center, then moves the show to the Miami Beach Botanical Garden for free, late-afternoon outdoor performances. It has been hard for the peripatetic company, which has moved around plenty in its 10 years of existence, to develop an ongoing audience for its edgy and pointedly minimalist fare.
But Vincent River — the title is a name, not a body of water — is worth seeking out. The layers of its mysteries are slowly peeled back, revealing deadly homophobia, a mother’s refusal to acknowledge her son’s truth, a haunted survivor’s guilt. Director Collin Carmouze has drawn a performance from Blanchette that takes Anita from a manipulative flippancy to angry devastation. And Johnston’s performance, particularly as he recounts the worst night of Davey’s life, is utterly riveting.
For the sake of future audiences, who deserve to discover the play’s twists and turns in the moment, we won’t get too far into the plot. But we can say that the title character is Anita’s late son, murdered in a brutal hate crime in an abandoned train station bathroom. Taking a shortcut past the station on a snowy midnight, Davey and his new fiancee Rachel found the body. Davey has been torn by the horrific sight ever since, and he wants to exorcise Vincent’s ghost.
Anita suspects, correctly, that there’s more to Davey’s troubled state than he’s letting on. So the conversation in this two-hander flows back and forth, each character coaxing or cajoling secrets from the other. Listening along with Anita as Davey brings a tragedy to life through his words, we “see” — and more importantly feel — an unfolding horror.
Both actors use accents authentic to their characters’ working-class, London East End backgrounds. The conversation is sometimes crude or explicit, fueled by gin-and-tonics (or straight gin) and a bit of pot. At certain points, each character seems to be serving as the other’s shrink, poking at sore spots, digging for truth.
Vincent River isn’t an extraordinary play, but it’s a compelling one in its exploration of grief, loss and living in truth. Blanchette creates a vivid character, certainly. And Johnston? His work is extraordinary.
If you go
What: ‘Vincent River’ by Philip Ridley.
Where: Ground Up & Rising production at Artistic Vibes, 12986 SW 89th Ave., Miami, through Sept. 4 (moves to Miami Beach Botanical Garden, 2000 Convention Center Dr., Miami Beach, Sept. 5-6, Sept. 11 and Sept. 13).
When: 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 2 and 6 p.m. Sunday.
Cost: $20 ($15 seniors; free for those under 25, free for all at Miami Beach).
Information: 305-562-5849 or www.groundupandrising.org.