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No Men? No Boats? No Problem! JTP’s Version of Jaclyn Backhaus’ Men on Boats Is Excellent

The Justice Theater Project, in its new home in the Umstead Park United Church of Christ in Raleigh, NC, opened its production of Jaclyn Backhaus’ breakout play, Men on Boats, Friday night. This play fits right into to the group’s mission, which is “to produce compelling theater experiences that create community dialogue and give voice to social concerns.” Although the title is Men on Boats, the cast of 10 consists entirely of women, as called for by the script. The intention of the playwright appears to be to awaken us to the importance and unimportance of gender as an aspect of identity.

Director Jules Odendahl-James works well with her cast, managing to keep the ironies in hand. This is a play about men; and there are no men, only people. There are no boats, only the teamwork needed for the lifting, lugging, maneuvering, and turning of boats. And yet we hardly notice these absences; both entities are present and active; and with the efforts of choreographer Denise Cerniglia, the audience experiences a contact with them. We also experience shooting lethal rapids and waterfalls, landing in safe places, and stepping out of the boats.

Set designer Sonya Drum creates a minimalist and effective set in a cavern in a canyon on the Colorado River. Lighting by Jenni Mann Becker makes the scenery even more realistic. Adding an additional sense, resident sound designer Juan Isler helps put us right the heart of the action with these 10 women/men.

The costumes of the ragtag lot, some left over from the recent Civil War, a Native American, a Brit, a cook, and other assorted Old West character garb are realistic. This polyglot of desperate adventurers is clothed by Emily Johns.

Faye Goodwin plays Major John Wesley Powell, who lost his right arm in 1862 at the Battle of Shiloh, and she plays the entire 90-minute show with that arm bent up so her hand rests on her shoulder, an ordeal that must have been tortuous. In 1869, Powell organized a survey expedition down the Colorado River. She plays Powell as an excellent, level-headed leader, in charge by virtue of her interest in her job and with the lives of her charges in mind.

The Brit, Goodman, is played by Sarah Koop, with an excellent English accent; and Koop shows Goodman’s tenderness as well intense courage. Koop also plays the role of Mr. Asa, who greets the explorers at their journey’s end.

Hawkins, the cook and a Civil War Union veteran, is enacted by Page Purgar as the guy who keeps other folk’s spirits up with his youthful vigor. Nine-year-old Bradley, the youngest on the trip, is taken on by Pugar’s daughter, Marleigh Purgar McDonald, who brings comic relief to the story with a handy coffee pot. Sumner, a short guy with a deep voice is performed by Tori Grace Nichols as the kind of fellow other people listen to; and she fits the character to tee.

Mara Thomas plays Dunn, a character who thinks that he should have been chosen to lead the expedition. Dunn wants outstanding hallmarks along the trip to be named for him if he sees them first.

The cast, which also includes Joanna Burwell, Jessica Fleming, Candace Hescock, and Ariel Griffin Smith, is a fine ensemble; and they easily pull us into their journeys, both the journey down the river and the larger journey they, as women, are leading.

This is an excellent show, the story of a bit of lesser-known history. Ironically, it makes a bit of history itself in cross-gender casting. See it.

SECOND OPINION: Feb. 9th Raleigh, NC CVNC review by Roy C. Dicks:

The Justice Theater Project presents MEN ON BOATS at 3:30 p.m. Feb. 10, 7:30 p.m. Feb. 15 and 16, 3:30 p.m. Feb. 17, 7:30 p.m. Feb. 22 and 23, and 3:30 p.m. Feb. 24 at the Umstead Park United Church of Christ, 8208 Brownleigh Dr., Raleigh, North Carolina 27617.

TICKETS: $22 ($10 students and $17 seniors and active-duty military personnel), except $15 per person for groups of 10 or more.


INFORMATION: 919-264-7089 or

SHOW: and

2018-19 SEASON:


VENUE: and



NOTE 1: There will be preshow discussions and various other events before various performances. Click here and scroll down for details.

NOTE 2: Arts Access, Inc. of Raleigh will audio-describe the show’s 3 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 24th, performance. OTHER LINKS:

Men on Boats (2015 New York and 2016 Off-Broadway comedy): (official website), (Dramatists Play Service, Inc.), and (Internet Off-Broadway Database).

The Script: (Google Books).

Jaclyn Backhaus (playwright): (Playwrights Horizons bio), (Internet Off-Broadway Database), (Internet Movie Database), and (Twitter page).

Jules Odendahl-James (director): (official website), (Duke Theater Studies bio), and (Twitter page).

Denise Cerniglia (choreographer): (official website) and (Facebook page).


Martha Keravuori is a life-long theater artist — an actress, director, and stage manager — in North Carolina, around the country, and overseas. She has a theater degree from UNC-Greensboro, and has been active in the arts in Raleigh for the past 40 years. Martha is the retired executive director of the North Carolina Theatre Conference. Chuck Galle returned to Raleigh last year after a 17-year absence. He was active in community theater for many years, and directed the troupe of maximum-security inmates at Raleigh’s Central Prison known as the Central Prison Players. In New England, he performed on stage, on TV, and in films. He is the author of Stories I Never Told My Daughter — An Odyssey, which can be ordered on Chuck Galle and Martha Keravuori previously reviewed theater for Boom! Magazine of Cary. Click here to read more of their reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.


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1 Response

  1. The Justice Theater Project regrets not notifying the reviewers in advance of the preferred pronoun use for the cast and artistic team of “Men on Boats”. For this review, we thank Tori Grace Nichols for their work with us, and ask that the public use they/them when referring to this actor.