Goodman’s transformative ‘The Trinity River Plays’ inspires while it meanders

The introverted Iris (Karen Aldridge) gets a makeover by her street-wise cousin (Christiana Clark) in Regina Taylor’s “The Trinity River Plays.”

In three interlocking pieces, playwright Regina Taylor charts the process of growing, grieving and growing again.

A transformation.

Very much in the spirit of Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy, which focuses on three key moments of Arnold’s life in a trio of one-act plays, The Trinity River Plays celebrates the life of Iris, played with superhuman force by Karen Aldridge, from an awkward, brainy teen who is forced to leave her innocence behind (which makes up the first act, entitled “Jarfly”) to a young adult who is forced to cope with a sudden loss after returning home (the middle act: “Rain”) to an adult who is forced to face her past and find healing and hope (the concluding act: “Ghoststory”). These three major life events transform Iris into a confident, strong woman who not only finds the means to love herself, but the ability to trust and love others.

I really enjoyed Taylor’s work here, which I gather is semi-autobiographical. Though it lasts three hours and 15 minutes, with two 15-minute intermissions, the time mostly flew by. However, some significant tightening could occur in the last act, which seems the most undeveloped of the three. Which is a pity, as the thing sort of fizzles at the end. And there’s a lot of time spent talking about gardening, as Iris’ mother (played with equal parts stubborn determination, unending love and devastating fragility by Penny Johnson Jerald) takes pride in her thriving backyard flower bed. It’s a logical metaphor for the changes in Iris’ life, if a bit unoriginal. I mean, the women in the play are all named after flowers: Iris, Iris’ mother Rose, Iris’ party-girl cousin Jasmine (Christiana Clark) and her aunt Daisy (Jacqueline Williams). If that tells you anything.

That aside, it’s still a powerful and honest piece of story telling filled with well-placed moments of humor and light, and I left thinking about my own familial relationships, drawing parallels with Iris’ experience and what I could learn from her. Taylor explores many universal themes here, and the characters are all richly drawn. It’s nearly impossible not to relate and feel empowered by Iris’ transformation.

I’m trying something new for 2011 — a CTA Index Rating. I’m going to rate each show on a ten-point scale. This way, I will be able to more effectively track my theatre-going habits and history.

CTA Index Rating: 8.5 (Taylor’s powerful, humorous and honest writing meanders a bit, particularly in the final act, making this potential 10-pointer fall down a few notches.)

“The Trinity River Plays” play through Feb. 20 at The Goodman Theatre. More info >

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