The River

Written by Lydia Benedict.

Last weekend Jez Butterworth’s play The River, starring Hugh Jackman, closed on Broadway. On Saturday I took my 18-year-old son Tennyson to see it. That marked my third time seeing the show.

I hadn’t planned on going three times. But it’s the kind of play that leaves you scratching your head. The first time I saw it was back in mid-December with Jeff. From the moment we took our seats at Circle in The Square Theater, we were intrigued. To begin with the stage was circular with seating almost all the way around. There’s no orchestra, no curtains, no fancy sets. Instead, the stage was the inside of a cabin with a few masculine furnishings: a book shelf, wood table with a couple of wood chairs, and some benches. A dock split the audience in half with a wooden walkway connecting it to the cabin. And we heard crickets, frogs, and the sound of a nearby river. It was like we were in the woods.

Jackman and Donnelly in The River

Then the play starts. At first the story seems simple enough. The Man (Jackman) brings The Woman (Cush Jumbo) to his remote cabin for a romantic night of fishing under a moonless August sky. The Woman goes off stage, changing places with The Other Woman (Laura Donnelly) without missing a beat. It’s as if the two characters are interchangeable with similar interactions and dialogue with The Man. One time, The Woman heads into the bedroom (off stage) to retrieve an object for The Man. The Other Woman returns with the object. By this point, nothing seems simple.

Jackman with Cush Jumbo in The River

Besides the evasive plot, I enjoyed seeing Jackman in a starkly different role. Instead of wearing tap shoes and carrying a dancing cane while performing “Singing in the Rain” like he did in his one-man show Back on Broadway, Jackman wore rubber Wellies, carried a buck knife in a scabbard on his belt, and gutted a real fish on stage. I admit that I prefer to see him singing and dancing. But Jackman captivated me as a fly-fisherman too. Besides, thanks to the intimacy of the stage, I was close enough to touch him. That alone was worth the price of admission. And when he prepared the fish on stage with fresh leeks, fennel and lemon, I could practically taste it.

Jackman gutting fish on stage

After seeing the play for the first time, Jeff and I couldn’t stop talking about the meaning. So we found some inexpensive seats and went again two nights later. After the play, Jackman came back on stage to raise money for the charity, Broadway Cares. He auctioned off his shirts as well as autographed posters and other paraphernalia. Charismatic and personal, Jackman interacted with audience members eliciting huge donations. One gray-haired lady boldly asked for his “drawers.” The place erupted. Jackman, not missing a beat, answered that for the right donation, anything was possible. More laughter. The fund-raising was almost as entertaining as the play.

Jackman fundraising after The River (photo by Jeff Benedict)

Afterwards, we waited outside the theater for Jackman. After greeting a line of fans along the rope, he got to me. As he signed my playbill, I talked to him about the plot. One of the things I like best about Jackman is how personable he is. I’ve met him numerous times and he always comes across as down to earth—if that’s even possible for this handsome Australian actor best known for playing the superhero Wolverine and flexing his ripped body.

Hugh greets his fans (photo by Jeff Benedict)

After Jeff and I saw the show twice, our son wanted to go. He’s a theater major and Jackman fan and he had planned on seeing the show with a friend. But that fell through at last minute. So I went with him instead. I couldn’t wait to hear Tennyson’s reaction: maybe he would see something I had missed. And it was Tennyson’s first time to see Jackman perform live.

After the play, we made our way out of the theater as quickly as possible and squeezed into the crowd waiting outside for Jackman. It was great. First, Tennyson unrolled his giant Wolverine poster and Hugh signed it. Then he exchanged a few words with Hugh. Tennyson has been involved in more than a few theater productions at college and in a small way knows of both the anticipation and let-down that comes with the end of a play.

“So one day more, right, Hugh?” Tennyson said referring to the musical “Les Miserables” (and Jackman’s 2012 role as Jean Valjean).

Hugh grinned. So did I.

Tennyson (see legs) with his autographed poster

That night, Tennyson and I were up late discussing the meaning of the play. And the next day during the six-hour drive home we discussed it again. He too was puzzled. Is The River a story about love or lies, women or fish, life or death? Is there a dark secret? In between the passionate exchanges, beautiful poetry, and mysterious meaning of The River, one thing is clear: it’s a contemplative story about a man who is tormented between what he is and what he imagines himself to be.