'Black River Falls' Throws Jonestown Massacre into Sharp Relief

(L to R) Gary (Brian Smick) shows off his best Pete Townshend moves to Colleen (Kathleen McHatton) in Performers Under Stress' production of 'Black River Falls' by Bryn Magnus. (Photo: James Charles Lyons)

If you’ve ever wondered whether a stage production could be strangely incompetent and yet somehow deliver a low-key evening of interest, then you might want to go to Performers Under Stress’ production of Bryn Magnus’ Black River Falls, a slow burning fever dream on the dangers and difficulties of leading a decent life.

It’s 1978, the Jonestown Massacre is hot news, and 17-year old Gary has cut short what was supposed to be an extended stay in the woods. That he failed to kill a deer is cause for concern. Returning to his small Wisconsin town for Thanksgiving weekend, Gary's worried about his 15-year-old sister, exasperated with his just-short-of-out-of-it dad, and vaguely in love with a longtime crush who's involved with another local boy and probably a few others along the way. Our somnambulant hero is alienated, world weary, and the only virgin on stage, much to little sister’s delight.

Nothing much happens as Gary drifts from his father's home, to the neighborhood bar, and to a series of painfully awkward conversations with his crush. Yet there’s something riveting about his desire to make things right with the people in his life, such as Dabney, a small-town braggart whose lurid claims of having sex with Grace Slick and writing parts of “White Rabbit” are treated as both a lie and proud local lore.

Laurie (Gabby Rose) is a bit troubled in Performers Under Stress' production of 'Black River Falls' by Bryn Magnus.
Laurie (Gabby Rose) is a bit troubled in Performers Under Stress' production of 'Black River Falls' by Bryn Magnus. (Photo: James Charles Lyons)

Scott Rangle’s production lies somewhere between a quasi-disaster and an inadvertent success. The director guides his cast to a series of well-balanced and sympathetic performances. No one stands out or tries to do too much, and that allows the whole ensemble to just kind of fall into Magnus’ delicate rhythms. But the set, unaccredited, is a jumbled mess. Plus, Rangle seems to have no idea how to move from scene to scene, as if basic stagecraft were an ancient language he’s failed to master.

I can think of hundreds of slicker productions that have offered much less. Yet details matter. The quiet care of such unaffected acting should carry the day, but the direction and design undermine that virtue. The play ends up being a strange failure, and an even stranger success.

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'Black River Falls' runs through Sunday, Nov. 20, at Mojo Theater in San Francisco. Tickets and information here.

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