There are not a lot of people who'll speak in favor of the child sex trade in Southeast Asia. As a moral debate, this one is a rout. To that extent, the Guthrie's world premiere about young girls rescued from a brothel kicks up some specific quandaries. There's little room in Boats on a River for, say, exploring the ambiguities of individual behavior. Instead, we're hit frontally with the reality of outright abuse.
The story (boldly commissioned by the Guthrie) opens in a shelter for girls freed from sexual slavery. At his desk is the rumpled Sidney (Nathaniel Fuller), who engages in the sort of banter with Sister Margaret (Dale Hodges) that's only possible after long hours spent together in trying conditions. She throws a shoe at him and tells him to go home to his wife; he takes halfhearted potshots at her faith. The interlude ends with the arrival of Jonathan (Kris L. Nelson), a lawyer for an aid organization who announces he's about to lead a surprise raid on a brothel—and that he expects Sidney's shelter to take in the score of girls he plans to spring.
Julie Marie Myatt's script intercuts the action with creepy video snippets, in which Ted Thompson (Peter Christian Hansen, his character frequently referring to himself in the third person) embarks on a trip to Cambodia. Hansen leers into the camera and spouts vague optimism about his solo trip away from the wife and kids. Truly, he almost pants with a convincing mix of anxiety and (we quickly figure out) anticipatory lust. This character, we gather, will not be the hero of our story.
Jonathan's raid is pretty much a flop—the cops are in bed with the brothel owners, so to speak—but he manages to bring three girls back to the shelter. There's thirteen-year-old Yen (Jeany Park), eight-year-old Lida (Mayano Ochi), and five-year-old Kolab (Rebecca J. Wall). Here director Michael Bigelow Dixon runs into a snag: Park, a youthful woman with a haughty teenage slouch, is visually convincing in her role. Ochi and Wall, also both adults, are not.
It's understandable that age-appropriate actors couldn't be cast in these parts. The girls' experience in the shelter grows out of the fact that they have been exposed to repeated sexual trauma. And though Ochi and Wall summon up the mix of innocence, dependence, and opportunism that has come out of that inferno, you'll only know how young these characters are if you consult your program.
The knotty origins of exploitation lead to rumination, and Myatt has her characters indulge too much in it. Still, there are touching moments, such as Nelson's delicate reading of a line about seeing tiny shoes left outside brothel rooms. We witness the girls looking wishfully over a wall at a cluster of bicycles. Near the end, Sidney manages a sort of reconciliation with his wife Tam (Yoko Fumoto), in which Fuller reaches with such clumsy force for her hand that he almost strikes her.
By the end, though, with only one moral direction to go, this particular craft becomes rudderless. Myatt's characters often don't transcend type: We meet the burnt-out do-gooder, the idealistic young man burned by his own arrogance, the crusty nun with a heart of gold. Just about everyone comes to the same conclusion: that the problem is complicated, heartbreaking, and intractable beyond real repair. It's a story in need of telling and worth hearing. There's a revealing moment at the end, when two young girls emerge onstage to step into the roles vacated by Ochi and Wall. The scene is poignant, beautiful even, yet it serves to confirm the dramatic limitations of the script. The victims of this awful situation are, in a sense, interchangeable, their misfortunes just as we thought them to be at the start.