Simon Stephens’ "Port" could easily be done poorly. A drama centered around the coming-of-age of a girl in a working class British town, it’s filled with characters that could be clichés: the bitter mom, the lunkheaded dad, dodgy high school friends, the aggressive husband. But Griffin Theater’s director, Jonathan Berry, handles the play with a fresh eye and snappy direction that whets the edge of characters dulled by use, and the ensemble responds with committed, sharp performances. The design team does a fine job of transforming the space and the actors into a taut, sharp looking vehicle for the story. Evidence of the production team’s excellent work can be seen in the scene changes; thoughtfully choreographed interludes punctuated by an excellent soundtrack, onstage costume changes, and clever reuse of existing furniture that keeps the set diverse and interesting.
None of this, however, would be as good without the absolutely stellar performance of Caroline Neff as Rachel, around whom the story revolves. Neff does not miss a single beat. Subtly but convincingly, with each costume change, we watch Neff advance Rachel through a series of relationships and events that in a lesser actor’s hands might not catch our interest. But Neff is so effortlessly committed to the role, living each phase of Rachel’s life with nearness and vitality, she brings everyone in the theater right to the living moment with her. Thanks to her work, Rachel’s decisions and encounters seem tangible; present and prickly, sometimes to the point of drawing blood. Her accent is spot-on and her choices are impeccable.
She’s got a fine support staff. Minor quibbles could be made with a choice here or there, and the accents of the cast falter in some instances, but all told Griffin Theater succeeds in making Port feel like we’re seeing this kind of story for the first time.