Design team is all that’s left above water
|Goodman Theatre presents|
|A True History of the Johnstown Flood|
|by Rebecca Gilman
directed by Robert Falls
Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn (map)
through April 18th (more info | tickets)
|reviewed by Catey Sullivan|
Rebecca Gilman’s latest play is titled A True History of the Johnstown Flood, but those hoping for any kind of insight into the tragedy will leave the Goodman Theatre’s production disappointed. As will those hoping to see a compelling story peopled with engaging characters. What A True History of the Johnstown Flood does offer is a condescending 2.5 hour lecture on the evils of Robber Baron capitalism backed by an award-worthy sound design and some amazing sets.
Speaking of which: The Goodman itself becomes an unintended, unavoidable and meta-theatrical punchline when one character opines with righteous indignation that some people go to the theater just to see the elaborate sets. The line refers to theater-goers of the 19th century, but it might as well refer to those who show up at the Goodman during the run of A True History of the Johnstown Flood.
Director Robert Falls might be working with paper dolls for all the authentic emotion he gets from a cast trapped in a narrative that has all the authenticity of a Perils of Pauline episode.
Set in 1889, the piece contains many plays-within-the-play, as it follows the fate of the Baxter family acting troupe. Siblings Fanny (Heather Wood, doing what she can with an underwritten ingenue), James (Stephen Louis Grush, consistently out-acted by his wig) and Richard (Cliff Chamberlain, stuck in a character whose emotional journey peaks with an excruciating case of explosive diarrhea) represent the working poor as they perform for a pittance at a posh resort located alongside a manmade lake high above working class Johnstown.
The Baxters perform in the style of the time – hackneyed plots delivered with stilted, exaggerated gestures and plumy, overripe line delivery. It is not a good sign when it becomes impossible to differentiate between the Baxter’s melodramas and Gilman’s drama. But Gilman’s narrative is that hollow and histrionic and under Falls’ direction, that histrionically performed.
Take (please) a scene wherein Clara Barton arrives in Johnstown and encounters Richard in the throes of what was once called the bloody flux. The dialogue is as stiff as a cadaver as Clara announces who she is and explains that she is with the Red Cross, and that the Johnstown Flood is the first Natural Disaster the Red Cross has responded to since the Civil War was a war and not a Natural Disaster. It’s like watching the Hall of Presidents exhibit at Disneyland: Soulless, superficial and self-consciously educational.
The 90-minute first act is a long, slow slog of exposition and declamation, as the Baxter siblings discuss their “museum worthy sets” and perform for the swells. James, who has been to Europe and ostensibly seen a few Ibsen plays, augments his performing career by writing bad plays about the unfair conditions of the proletariat. Cue the thick-as-river-bottom-sludge foreshadowing: James runs into an ancient fisherman who explains the potential for flooding like some latter day Sophoclean messenger.
The worst instance of this automaton-school-of-(over)acting comes toward the close of the 90-minute first act, in what should be a breathtakingly suspenseful climax as the Baxters – and their newfound patron, the wealthy Andrew Lippincott (Lucas Hall) - are holed up with their sets in a freight car as the storms rages outside. The huddled group learns of the approaching disaster via a series of telegrams, each one delivered by the same, increasingly het up fellow.
Instead of the all-but unbearable tension borne of the knowledge that a disaster is imminent and one might be breathing one’s last, the scene is all fussy, unintended comedy. By the time the water arrived (with a blackout and Richard Woodbury’s extraordinary sound design), we found ourselves so distracted by the telegram man’s superpowers (Was the telegram office right next door to the Baxter’s train car? How was he getting back and forth so fast? Could he fly?) the flood itself seemed almost beside the point.
Sound designer Woodbury provides the sole harrowing moment in the piece, capturing the crashing din of 20 million tons of water – and the countless trees, homes, corpses, animals and debris caught within its violent roil – with an apocalyptic sonic roar so fearsome it evokes the fury of the Old Testament’s God. It’s horrifying, and it is the sole moment in the play that effectively evokes the nightmarish event that is the Johnstown Flood.
Post-flood (and post intermission), the story dribbles into soggy inconsequence. People enter and exit looking for loved ones on a stage strangely bereft of corpses given the elaborate nature of the Goodman’s production values elsewhere in the drama. The flood killed over 2,000 people, but for all its big-budget resources, the Goodman has only three or four dead bodies on stage in a scene that supposedly shows desperate survivors searching for their loved ones amid hundreds of fatalities.
Later comes a potentially intriguing exchange as Lippincott discusses the flood with an official from the South Fork Hunting and Fishing Club – the organization responsible for building Lake Conemaugh as a playground for the rich, and thereby endangering the lives of the working class folk downstream. But the Club man disappears after that single conversation. Instead of the class conflict the scene seems to portend, Gilman gives us only James’ hackneyed attempts at social justice via melodrama, with the Baxters beating their breasts and wailing unto the skies with all the verisimilitude of canned hams.
In the end, the Baxters inexplicably forsake their careers in the theater. A new cast is seen rehearsing James’ play on Broadway while James and Fanny are seemingly far away in a domestic life that doesn’t involve their “museum quality sets.” Their abrupt retirement would be perplexing, if the story had given audiences any reason to care. But there is no such reason, unless, of course, you want to know what became of all that marvelous scenery.