Vincent River Flows Into Artistic Vibes and Miami Beach Botanical Garden

In the minds, pens, and computers of so many playwrights, the small, squalid room holds a special allure. With the notable exception of No Exit, most of these rooms have doors that are really liberating portals to a better world. There's a problem, though. They're rarely used.

For the tortured characters in works such as Stephen Belber's Tape, Sam Shepard's Fool for Love, Tracy Letts' Bug, and Dominique Morisseau's Sunset Baby, the door is an escape hatch. If characters passed through it, that would undermine the very reasons they are gathered: the unpacking of traumas, the revelation of secrets, the belated catharses. This is the stuff of exceptional minimalist theater.

Philip Ridley's Vincent River is dingy minimalism par excellence. Opening this Saturday as the last play in Ground Up & Rising's brief summer season, it is set in a "rundown flat in Dagenham, East London." The dwelling is in a state of seemingly perpetual impermanence: There are more moving boxes than furniture items. Its 53-year-old tenant, Anita (Beverly Blanchette), is no less attached to the place than she is to Davey (Bobby Johnston), the 17-year-old boy with the bruised eye who's been stalking her for weeks — and whom she's taken in like a clingy mutt.

They drink too much, swallow pain pills, and smoke pot.

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Both are lost souls, fundamentally opposite but with a shared impetus for their disrepair. Anita's 33-year-old son, Vincent, was murdered in a brutal attack outside a seedy dive, and Davey, it just so happens, found the body. The image has been haunting him, he says, and he wants answers from Anita so he might finally purge the grisly scene from his mind. Anita seeks information from him as well, and she gets it, along with a few crucial reveals, over 90 real-time minutes of harrowing reenactments and emotional acrobatics.

"Both Beverly and Bobby have great emotional range," director Collin Carmouze says. "It's always difficult to stifle an emotion onstage, but they both have the ability to do just that. Their nuanced performances bring authenticity to the characters of Anita and Davey, and they work very well off each other, taking what the other is giving."

For Blanchette, who is accustomed to being "typecast in dumb-mother roles or commercials for laundry detergent," she says, the role of Anita has proven to be a theatrical godsend. It challenges her on a few levels — tremendous line memorization, a Yorkshire dialect, physically taxing plot developments — while rewarding her with its complexity.

"It's the type of part I always wanted to play but have never had the opportunity to play," Blanchette says. "[My character] is so multifaceted. There's a lot of depth but also a lot of humor in her. And she's a mother. She's a mother of a 33-year-old young man. I have daughters who are 33 and 31. If you're not a mother, you might not understand her intentions or her views on things, but then being a mother, you get it.

"So I was so thrilled that Arturo [Rossi, executive director of Ground Up & Rising] and Collin offered me the part and that they had the confidence in me to do it. That was the leading factor. That gave me a boost of confidence. It's definitely going to stretch me."

The play will stretch Johnston too. The young actor is best known to Miami theatergoers as the dead hooker who wasn't dead in Zoetic Stage's Clark Gable Slept Here. He also impressed critics and audiences as the libertine title character in Outre Theatre's cult musical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. He concludes Vincent River with a pair of sprawling monologues that, if delivered correctly, will paint a picture of the events of Vincent's death that are as clear for the audience as a high-def image.

Davey and Anita are arguably the most demanding roles that Johnston and Blanchette have played on a South Florida stage. They obfuscate, lie, and reveal. They snap and jibe at each other, then embrace. They are at once a mother and son, dueling interrogators engaged in a tête-à-tête, and companions healing through an intense session of talk therapy.

"Each uses the other as a surrogate for Vincent," Carmouze says. "They need each other in some way but are wary and untrusting of each other."

Over the course of the play, they also drink too much, swallow pain pills, and smoke pot — prompting the actors to maintain control even while their characters slowly lose it.

"One of the main things in playing drunk or high onstage is to try your best not to be drunk, because that's what drunk people do," Blanchette says. "They don't slur their words or walk wobbly. They do everything they can to maintain the appearance of sobriety. But at the same time, it's toward the end of the play by the time we've really been drinking, and by the time the weed and the pills take over, it's an emotionally draining play anyway. By the end of rehearsal, when we've gone through certain things in the play, I'm kind of already there. It's just natural."

Without giving too much away, there is also part of Vincent River that deals with intolerance and abuse of homosexuals — a chronic problem in 1989, when Ridley wrote the unpublished radio play that later became Vincent River. And despite recent legislative triumphs for LGBT people, prejudice remains as ugly and volatile as ever, and Blanchette believes the play has lost none of its original, scorching impact.

"I hope people will learn from [the play]," she says. "[Ground Up & Rising is] putting material out there that is going to make people walk away and think. But at the same time, I think it's going to be entertaining. I don't think it's going to be an hour and a half of drama. There's a lot of humor in it. If you get any message at all, it's going to be kind of an undercut. It's not hammering you over the head with anything. I think you're just going to get it."

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John Thomason