Annie Henk, David Rosenblatt, Juan Fransisco Villa, TJ Witham, Jordan Mahome and Geany Masai in THE PLAY ABOUT MY DAD. Photo by Chantel C. Lucier.
BOTTOM LINE: Smart storytelling to tell a sad story.
When you hear about a natural disaster, you're usually privy to the aftermath. TV cameras show devastated regions, dilapidated houses and residents who have lost everything. And so it was with Hurricane Katrina back in 2005, when those of us who weren't near the Gulf Coast saw footage of soggy wreckage and people on roofs waiting for help to arrive. But what happened when the hurricane hit? What happened to the people who looked death in the eye as they watched the waters rise?
Boo Killebrew's new play The Play About My Dad looks at the terror of Hurricane Katrina as the storm came to shore, through several intertwining vignettes. The stories are the memories of Boo's dad Larry, and both he and Boo are in the play to narrate. Larry (Jay Potter) is an emergency room doctor in Southern Mississippi; he also happens to be estranged from Boo (Anna Greenfield). Post-Katrina, the two reconnect and begin to rebuild their relationship; Larry tells Boo about his experiences during Katrina and together they write a play (this play) to illustrate both the story of the hurricane and also their relationship.
The story is linear, with the impending doom getting closer as the stories progress, but the scenes bounce between the characters' stories and Boo and Larry's narration. Larry is the connector between the various characters and he goes in and out of their stories; the others never meet one another. The Play About My Dad features two EMTs who were friends with Boo growing up, Kenny (Jordan Mahome) and Neil (TJ Witham). They are on duty in an ambulance when the hurricane hits. It also looks at the Thomas family: Rena (Annie Henk), Jay (Juan Francisco Villa) and their young son Michael (David Rosenblatt). They are in their home during Katrina, as Jay doesn't expect it to be as bad as they say. It also looks at Essie Watson (Geany Masai), alone in her home just blocks away from the Gulf of Mexico; she was also unwilling to flee. The characters discuss the "safe danger" of a hurricane -- it's never as bad as it seems to be.
Killebrew's raw script, coupled with the fact that she herself is a character, paints an intimate portrait of what happened during the storm, and the strength it takes to face death. It also reminds us that the horror of Katrina shouldn't be ignored or pushed under the rug, but that the people who suffered or lost their lives deserve commemoration. Described by Larry as "magical realism," the play does an impressive job of bringing the audience into the suspenseful story while employing a fantastical element that allows Killebrew to suspend time and location, playing with narrative devices. The through-line is guilt: all characters, including Boo and Larry, tackle remorse in this emotionally heightened time. But the play is a dramedy, with plenty of laughs that expose the humanity behind the disaster. This is both enjoyable and infinitely important for a story that's already such a downer merely by the nature of the subject at hand.
The set, designed by Kate Sinclair Foster, is minimal but highly effective. Chairs, wood slats and boxes stand in for furniture, suggesting both wreckage and the notion of rebuilding. It's also assembled before the audience's eyes, which parallels the weaving of the story itself. The tiny black box at 59E59 is smartly used by director Lee Sunday Evans, who employs every inch of space, including the height. Evans makes the stage seem much larger than it is -- there is plenty of room to stimulate urgency and a monstrous natural disaster -- while infusing the play with a quiet grace that feels respectful to Katrina's victims. Curiously, there aren't any sound effects to evoke the changing weather. This allows for the creative storytelling to shine: as the characters tell you how loud the wind is, you imagine what it must be like. The audience is active as the stories unfold.
The cast of The Play About My Dad does a noble job presenting their individual stories. To stay present in a space that small is a challenge, and all embrace their worlds. Greenfield and Potter are the consummate guides as they reiterate the importance of this theatrical undertaking, both socially and personally. Cast standouts are Mahome and Witham as the EMTs who remain strong while facing death, and Masai who embodies an old woman accepting her fate.
The Play About My Dad is a finely executed production with an important message. It's an engaging experience, though hardly a pick-me-up. Killebrew handles the subject matter well, and contributes to the memorializing of a story that still hasn't gotten enough exposure. And her narrative choices in telling this story, prove her talent as a playwright.
(The Play About My Dad plays at 59E59 Theatres, 59 East 59th Street, through July 2, 2011. Performances are Tuesdays through Thursdays at 7:30PM, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:30PM, and Sundays at 3:30PM. Tickets are $18. To purchase tickets call 212.279.4200 or visit 59e59.org.