Reviewed by Judy Richter
One of the worst natural disasters in this nation's history began on Aug. 29, 2005, when Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, wreaking widespread havoc. The human toll was so devastating and so long-lasting that a playwright would be hard-pressed to dramatize it. Dan Dietz wisely chooses to focus on one New Orleans family trying to rebuild in "Clementine in the Lower 9," receiving its world premiere from TheatreWorks.
Dietz subtitles the work "A Blues Riff on Aeschylus' Agamemnon." However, this isn't an updating of the Greek tragedy. Rather, it alludes to some characters and incidents. Therefore, one doesn't need to know anything about "Agamemnon" to understand "Clementine." The blues aspect is more apropos since New Orleans is renowned for its blues and jazz music. Composer-musical director-orchestrator Justin Ellington contributes blues songs performed by a four-person, onstage combo. One of the four is pianist Kenny Brawner, who serves as Chorus in the Greek tradition.
The family in this work includes Clementine (Laiona Michelle), a black registered nurse who stayed in the city during and after the hurricane. As the play opens, she's joined by her son, Reginald (Matt Jones), who is on summer break after his first year at Columbia University in New York City. They are waiting for their husband-father, Jaffy (Jack Koenig), a white jazz trumpeter who has been in Houston trying to find work for the past nine months. Clementine's joy at his arrival turns to anger and skepticism when she sees that he has brought Cassy (Jayne Deely), a 15-year-old junkie who's going through the agonies of withdrawal. Jaffy claims that Cassy is a prophet who helped him win $10,000 in a lottery. At present, though, Cassy refuses to speak except for occasional outbursts of "Apollo."
The subsequent action deals with the family's efforts to restore their badly damaged house and to heal pain of the past, including Jaffy's previous drug habit and his role in the death of their daughter, Iffy, who drowned in the flood. And unlike "Agamemnon," this play ends on a note of hope, in part brought about by music.
J.B. Wilson's set sprawls across the stage with debris of all sorts littering the sides. Before the action begins, Jake Rodriquez's sound design evokes the fearsome storm, augmented by Steven B. Mannshardt's lighting. The costumes by are Cathleen Edwards with fight direction by Jonathan Rider.
The production features an excellent cast, especially Michelle in her portrayal of Clementine, and assured direction by Leah C. Gardiner. However, Dietz's effort to combine Greek mythology with the story of a modern family is interesting in theory but doesn't quite work. And while music is an integral part of New Orleans' identity and a strong tie between Jaffy and Clementine, the score sometimes seems tacked on. Likewise, the use of a Chorus seems superfluous. The family's story is strong enough to stand on its own without all the extras.