Reviewed by Jerry Kraft
"The Breach" is a hugely ambitious play that attempts to tell the story of the Katrina catastrophe through the private stories of individuals, through theatrical gesture, and also through an investigation into the larger social, political and racial forces that contributed to it. In spite of gorgeous production values, excellent acting and solid direction by David Esbjornson (who co-designed the set with Dana Perreault) it fails in all three intentions. The trio of playwrights, Catherine Filloux, Tarell McCraney and Joe Sutton do not have distinctive voices, and the blending of all three only emphasizes the lack of stylistic coherence in the writing. Oddly, the play is both too large and too small, and that leaves us feeling like their great ambition of portraying a national tragedy in human terms is trivialized into small and unrepresentative stories, and the larger moral and ethical questions go unanswered.
Of the several storylines, the strongest is the opening one. A young man, his grandfather and his much younger sister have crawled through a hole in the roof of their home and are stranded on the rooftop in pouring rain. That actual rain falls in torrents across the stage and into a long pool which will also represent all those adrift in the waters of the flood. The young man, Severence, (strongly played by Hubert Point-Du Jour) brings a history of irresponsibility that the Grandfather (William Hall Jr.) finds intolerable. In protecting the old man, and his little sister (played silently by Michelove Rene Bain) Severence finds his strength and identity. After days, they are both swept from the roof and into the water, never to be seen again. Crystal Fox ,as the now adult little girl who survives, retells the story. There is a stark immediacy to this story, and the image of this dysfunctional family adrift on a tiny piece of tenuous debris, barely remaining above the fetid floodwaters, still trying to know each other and resolve their differences, felt more authentic than anything else in the play. Another storyline about a man in a wheelchair who has to go into the water and then, eventually, escape with a grievous wound that costs him a leg, was a meandering contrivance. It was made worse by the introduction of a mythical siren (Nike Imoru) in a shimmering blue dress who was supposed to represent Water, and who endlessly entices him to give himself up to her. John Aylward was fine as the man in distress, making the character of Mac vulnerable and sympathetic, but the expectations and inventions of the script were impossible. It made him not only a prototypical victim whose infirmities and character defects are exploited by the flood, but also the father of a heroic Iraqi veteran (Medal of Honor, no less), an alcoholic, and a man in search of a woman he has lost. All of it, from the leap into the water to his rescue by boat to a hospital scene with the Water Siren beside him in bed was, frankly, ridiculous.
Equally unsatisfying was the storyline that puts an inept and inarticulate reporter (Michael Braun) into the scene to "get the story." In addition to being entirely unable to connect with or earn the confidence of the African-American community who holds the story, the play makes a huge mistake in what that story is. Apparently, many believed that the levee was breached not by the storm, but by a bomb intentionally planted. And that it had happened before. Now the play is smart enough not to focus on whether or not that was true, but rather to ask why so many believed that it was true. Unfortunately, neither the reporter nor the play provides any sort of satisfying answer. We're left with the big question (the big, wrong question) and no sense that anything in the action of this drama will bring us closer to understanding.
"The Breach" correctly identifies the disaster of New Orleans during Katrina as one of the great dramatic events of American history. But without giving us a thematic scale and probity equal to the consequence of the disaster, and without making individual stories truly represent something larger than the particular, it simply feels like a great mass of stagnant water from which, hopefully, some body of solid ground might later rise.