William Jackson Harper and Myra Lucretia Taylor
in A Cool Dip in the Barren Saharan Crick
(© Joan Marcus)
William Jackson Harper and Myra Lucretia Taylor
in A Cool Dip in the Barren Saharan Crick
(© Joan Marcus)
Diving into Kia Corthron's A Cool Dip in the Barren Saharan Crick, running now at Playwrights Horizons, is a bit like being thrown into a theatrical eddy that is, by turns, exhilarating and bewildering. Corthron has created an intriguing group of characters who come together in some fascinating ways, but before the play has run its course, her invention has run dry, and theatergoers are left not with drama but with didacticism.

The play begins in 2006 in a small drought-stricken town in Maryland, where gregarious and good-willed Pickle (brought to life marvelously by Myra Lucretia Taylor) lives with her teen daughter H.J. (Kianné Muschett). Pickle grieves intensely for her dead son and her pain is so great that her grasp on reality seems to be slipping, which concerns both H.J. and the house's other resident, Abebe (an always winning and deeply felt turn from William Jackson Harper), a young Ethiopian man whom Pickle met on a Christian tour of his homeland and who is now studying ecology and theology.

In the first act, Corthron reveals these character's lives and relationships obliquely and with tantalizingly unconventional flair. Theatergoers' interest in the play is deepened by the presence of a fourth character, a little boy named Tay (played effectively by Joshua King), who saw his father commit suicide after he had shot his wife and Tay's siblings. Abebe has become a friend to Tay and with his unique blend of a missionary's zeal and genuine kindness is attempting to draw the child out of his willful silence. With the addition of Tay's story, Corthron's play becomes a multiply layered exploration of grief and loss that's equally concerned with making a statement about the ecology.

Unfortunately, in the play's second act, when the action has moved forward to the not-so-distant future, the playwright's interest in making a statement about our environment comes to the fore and the inherently interesting drama is swept away by polemics and unconvincing storytelling. Pickle suffers debilitating headaches from the truck fumes that pervade her home now that a water bottling plant has been built next door. Abebe, who returned to his country, has not been able to stop a super dam from being built there, and he's seen his small village washed away in its wake.

As for H.J., she's been married and separated, had a child (given up for adoption) and become born-again. She's now eager for Abebe, who's returned for her mother's 50th birthday, to baptize her. They opt for a creek in Tennessee, a place where Abebe, we are told, performed his first baptism. When they arrive though, they find that it -- unsurprisingly -- has run dry. Tay's fate is only described.

Director Chay Yew's production unfolds awkwardly within the confines of Kris Stone's scenic design, which attempts to serve the piece's myriad locales while simultaneously being both naturalistic and symbolic. He sets the main action of the play -- Pickle's kitchen -- at a remove from the audience, which is not problematic during the play's first half. During the second act, however, his choice only proves to distance audiences further from this ambitious and well-meaning, but ultimately arid, piece.