Roots of Rice

As much as Houstonians might love our Rice University -- those gigantic oaks, the library with its glossy waxed floors and those smart, serious-minded students -- learning the genesis of the grand old place sounds about as interesting as a bowl of Dickensian gruel. Somehow though, Main Street Theater has managed to make something quite palatable from the dreary ingredients of the school's beginnings.

Doug Killgore's The Trust, directed by Stephen Jackson, begins in turn-of-the-century downtown Houston, at the old Rice Hotel. William Marsh Rice (Charlie Trotter), his wife, Elizabeth (Mimi Stebenne), and Captain James A. Baker (Mark Rickell) plot out the school. Baker and Elizabeth want to get going on the project as soon as possible, but Rice won't hear of it. He won't give a cent while he's alive. His wife begs to be involved, to at least start the library, but Rice stomps his foot down.

His unbending will is the great man's first flaw. His money is no good to anyone while he's alive. Scalawags and hoodlums are everywhere. And it doesn't take long before lowlifes start scrambling for Rice's millions.

But the most fatal of his flaws is his cocksure belief in his own intuition. He's rich and powerful and erroneously believes he understands people and their motives. This foolish confidence betrays him after his beloved wife's death. Childless, old and lonely, he takes on a "valet," a porter from his Houston hotel. Charlie Jones (Andrew Ruthven) turns out to be a spineless nitwit, the perfect puppet for anyone with bad intentions.

To tell more would give away the plot. And in this story of poison, betrayal, false wills, forgery and murder, what-comes-next is half the fun.

The other half is the performances. Ruthven's Jones has a sweetly innocent face and a hang-wringing worriedness to him that fools everyone. No one suspects he'd ever be dastardly to the old man. Trotter's Rice is a cranky old bone whose demise is all the more pathetic in light of his initial strength. His is the sort of fist-banging will that builds wealthy corporations and great universities. On the other hand, Pickell's serious, intelligent, calm James Baker is the ultimate negotiator. Underneath his pale everyman good looks is a tricky lawyer who always gets his way in the bitter end. Pickell and Trotter play off each other well, establishing two very different, though equally important, kinds of power, two types of dignity. It took both to create a university as fine as Rice.

-- Lee Williams

The Trust runs through June 13 at Main Street Theater, 2540 Times, (713)524-6706. $13-$18.


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