Encore Michigan

‘Swimming Upstream’ at The Detroit Rep looks at spawning of both salmon and people

Review November 12, 2017 David Kiley

DETROIT–New plays that deal with real things and real issues are a welcome treat at a time when prevailing power in government these days chooses to deny basic realities like climate change and societal challenges like racism and homophobia.

It is even more welcome when a playwright chooses humor to get at the truths of the matter. In Swimming Upstream, a new play by Rich Rubin at The Detroit Repertory Theatre, the journey of two seemingly mismatched people through trying to find love is set against a backdrop of the global warming debate between science and conservative pro-business politics.

Jen (Audrey Lovy) is a marine biologist in Seattle and single in her mid 30s, and pretty obsessed with salmon and the future of the species. She meets Matt (Yianni Papadimos), an illustrator of graphic novels, on a Match.com-like date. The two begin getting to one another in that early-days awkward way. What hits you in the face pretty quick is that these two don’t seem to go together at all. It’s difficult to tell if it’s that the characters as written don’t fit together, or if the actors lack chemistry, or a combination of both.

There is a lot of talk about salmon and spawning. And director Harry Wetzel has cleverly dropped some transitional musical riffs on Ravel’s Bolero into the show to match up with that story-line. Jen has hit on some data that will show very clearly to anyone that the future of the salmon species is going to be very much in doubt in two decades because of global warming. She and her bestie/co-researcher Val (Stefanie Sambrano) want to publicize the data right away. But their boss, James (Raymond Jordan) wants to wait a year or until a new White House administration comes in that will be more open-minded.

There is an old bromide that opposites attract that is mostly BS when it comes to people. But it’s not so much that Jen and Matt are opposites. Both, indeed, have a lot of passion for their work. Matt is super hyper excited about his love of super heroes, while Jen is over the moon about…salmon. They are both geeks in their own categories. Jen, in fact, who does do something heroic (if completely implausible), becomes a bit of hero to Matt.

Winding through the story is the oddball and humorous relationship between Jen and her mid-sixties mother, Evelyn (Sandra Love Aldridge), who is a bit of a stock Mother character but for her obsession (it runs in the family) with Ronald Reagan. She has portraits of the 40th President all over the house, including in the bathroom.

Swimming Upstream is a world premier. There is a story here, but it doesn’t seem developed with enough layers or with enough for the main characters to do to make us actually care very much about what happens to them. And the play ends rather abruptly and without much in the way of meaningful resolution, so much so that I wasn’t actually sure the play was over when the curtain closed.

All of the Detroit Rep’s productions have some aspect of diversity that is tackled in the work. In this case, it was that Jen is African-American and Matt is white. I never really saw race being an issue at all between them, which, of course, was refreshing. They were just people, two geeks looking for love outside of what made them geeks in the first place. Race and color mattered not to them, or to Jen’s Mom as far as her daughter’s choice of boyfriend or the President she adores–Reagan, with not even a mention of Obama.

The puzzle pieces of this play seem like they are all on the table, but I’m not sure the playwright has worked out yet how they are all supposed to fit so that we genuinely care about them. It is interesting, though, to watch the actors and director try.

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