Monday, March 29, 2010

Lost in the 'Flood'

Theater Review

A True History of the Johnstown Flood
A new play by Rebecca Gilman
Goodman Theatre, Chicago

In 1889, over 2,200 people in Johnstown, PA lost their lives when the town flooded after a man-made lake at a resort in the Allegheny Mountains--created so that 60 wealthy members, including Andrew Carnegie, could catch imported fish--broke through a dam following a torrential rainstorm and picked up tons of debris as it raced down the mountain and hit the town.

As told on Wikipedia and undoubtedly more in depth elsewhere, the story is both tragic and compelling for--similar in some regard to what happened with Katrina in 2005--what may have seemed like an Act of God was actually in large part caused by man. And in the aftermath of the Johnstown flood, there were attempts to hold the resort--the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club--and its members accountable, but while these did create changes to liability laws, there was no direct recompense for the city, its victims or survivors.

Unfortunately, despite its title, A True History of the Johnstown Flood gets too awash in the fictional devices Rebecca Gilman chooses to tell the story. Despite a lavish production by director Robert Falls & set designer Walt Spangler and solid performances throughout, Gilman's take goes ambitiously awry to the point of making the 2-1/2 hours spent in the theater less enriching and enlightening than the 15 minutes it took to read the true account of the flood in the program notes beforehand.

While Gilman is clearly a talented writer, perhaps that's the problem here. Instead of taking a more conventional approach, in telling the tale through a fictional family of actors who come to the resort for a performance on the precipice of the flood, she tries to do too much and winds up with a story more convoluted than compelling. Any in turn, any clear modern day allegory is also, um, cast adrift.

In itself, Gilman's commentary on the uncomfortable mix of art and commerce isn't a disaster, but perhaps it should have been a different piece. Because far too much of the audience's time is taken up with fake plays within the play, bickering among the siblings, Marxism-infused self-righteousness, a creepy romance and undue sentimentality over a horse-head stage prop. Not only are we never introduced to anyone who actually lives in Johnstown, I'd imagine if someone was brought to this play by their spouse, unaware of the title, they likely would have spent the first 70 minutes with no clue that it had anything to do with the Johnstown flood.

All of which doesn't really matter, for atypical creative choices are to be applauded and can often work far better than they might sound. But sadly, they don't here. Skip the theatrics and spend a few minutes learning the "true history."

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