Sometimes the playwright, director, designers, and cast of a new play get it exactly right. From the preshow music to final moment, you have something akin to a spiritual experience. You share a journey filled with laughter, tears, and hope in a dark theater full of people you don’t know. Along the way, you all become a little more human.
Boats on a River, written by Julie Marie Myatt and directed by Michael Bigelow Dixon, is about sex trafficking in Southeast Asia. Myatt could have gone the easy route and preached. What she has done instead is offered a nuanced glimpse into the personal and political lives of people affected by trafficking. The results are impressive.
The play begins with a close-up of the handsome face of Ted Thompson, filming himself talking about his upcoming trip to Phnom Penh. He’s never left the U.S. before, he’s not sure why he picked Cambodia, and he’s taking his camcorder with him to document the strange land. He’s ready to see the sights, meet the natives, and in general, treat Cambodia like a theme park. Considering that Americans comprise an estimated 25 percent of all sex tourists—and that they are frequently derided for treating foreign countries like Disneyland—Peter Christian Hansen’s Ted is a caricature that has the disturbing ring of truth. Ted is shocked by the dirtiness of the place (at Disneyland, one finds nary a cigarette butt on the street) but the energy of the city and all the fun things to do—spicy food! People on bikes instead of in cars! Eight-year-old girls!—draws him in.
Boats focuses mostly on two aftercare shelter workers, Sidney Webb and Sister Margaret, and the three girls who have been thrust into their care. Margaret is practical, whereas Sidney has started to conflate his work with his home life. Both have had years of practice and insight into the plight of victims of sexual abuse and the challenges of psychological rehabilitation, but the job never gets any easier. Nathaniel Fuller and Dale Hodges as Sidney and Margaret play off each other beautifully.
The girls—five, eight, and thirteen years old—struggle in their new environment. The eldest, a thirteen-year-old named Yen, is played by Jeany Park with a sexualized strut that masks her terror. After the doctors tell her she has AIDS, she tells the other two girls that the shelter is nothing more than a vacation. When they’re thrown back into the real world, she says, they’ll have to work in a factory twelve hours a day, with no one to protect them. She can’t damper the girls’ mounting optimism, however. Mayano Ochi and Rebecca J. Wall infuse their young characters with ever-increasing wonderment and vigor. They look out the window at schoolchildren with bicycles and uniforms, and believe that one day, they might be able to have that kind of life, too. In the words of Sister Margaret, God bless those little angels.
Boats on a River runs through June 10 at the Guthrie Theater.