With their second show of the season, Coal Mine Theatre offers up a riveting production of Stephen Adly Guirgis’s Pulitzer Prizing winning drama, Between Riverside and Crazy. Director Kelli Fox maintains an impeccably natural ebb and flow to the emotional rhythms of the story and so—from playful ranting to fiery mic-drop showdowns—it all feels like messy, throbbing life.
The story revolves around Walter “Pops” (Alexander Thomas), a Black, retired New York City policeman. Not long after the death of his wife, Walter and his rent-controlled apartment on Riverside serve as haven for his ragtag family—by blood or circumstance. His son, Junior (Jai Jai Jones), is recently out of prison, living there with his girlfriend, Lulu (Zarrin Darnell-Martin), and a recovering addict named Oswaldo (Nabil Rajo). For the better part of a decade, Walter has been embroiled in a discrimination suit against the police department after he was shot by another officer—a white man.
Tension mounts as personal loyalties clash with professional and political ambitions. As former police partner, Audrey (Claire Armstrong), and her fiancé, Dave (Sergio Di Zio), revisit and re-contexualize their shared history, friendships are suddenly on the line as each strives to secure their future. It all feels so painfully true to life—that slow slide from joyous, drunken reminiscence to bitter, desperate threats. The scenes that tore me up the most occur between Thomas, Armstrong and Di Zio—who convey, with such astounding honesty, the moral and emotional weight of their struggle to reconcile their ideals with the realities of survival.
Guirgis play never attempts to make anyone feel precious. Each of these characters are complex and difficult, though there is a poetry in their achingly human contradictions. On stage the entire time, Thomas is the magnetic core of the production and his charismatic performance paints a thoroughly captivating portrait of obstinacy and gruff benevolence.
As a “Church Lady” who comes to call on Walter with her own enigmatic motivations, Allegra Fulton is an eccentric highlight of the production. The playful dynamic between her and Walter goes to a particularly wild place and ultimately lands on a final note that acknowledges our cynicism and then dissipates it—and does so without indulging in forced sentiment.
The sense of authenticity is heightened by Anna Treusch’s finely wrought set, stretching out through the narrow space, representing four distinct areas of the apartment and bringing them together as a lived-in whole. An impressive aspect of Steve Lucas’s lighting is the way it captures shifting daylight. This is achieved with a small cyclorama just beyond the rooftop portion of the set, tucked away behind a slide-away kitchen wall. The illusion of sky is somewhat diminished by the exposed texture of the cyclorama in open rooftop scenes, but the effect of natural light when glimpsed through the kitchen window is nuanced perfection.
Between Riverside and Crazy tackles themes of class, race and justice, but not as grand abstractions; we must contend here with imperfect people striving to make the most out of a situation fraught with emotional and ethical complexity. It’s a solid and deeply satisfying piece of theatre.