Hell and High Water, Or Lessons for When the Sky Falls
nytheatre.com review by Nathaniel Kressen
April 1, 2010
Although Hell and High Water is a first-hand account of one Katrina victim's survival, the playwright struggles to find her voice and in the end only briefly touches on the devastation she seeks to portray. Jamuna Yvette Sirker devotes the full first act to a sprawling depiction of pre-hurricane New Orleans. We meet the protagonist, Teacher Alice, and her assorted friends. A spirit named Bag L (short for Bag Lady) arrives and warns that trouble is on the way. A transvestite intermittently appears as a personification of the hurricane, then at last hits the city to lead us into intermission.
When the second act begins, Teacher Alice and two others from her circle have found shelter in a Texan refugee center. They watch the footage in horror and worry about the friends and families who stayed behind. In one of the play's most dynamic scenes they argue with bureaucrats in order to receive monetary assistance from the government, but even then are refused the full amount. When at last they are allowed to return home, they discover their neighborhoods destroyed and their loved ones injured, traumatized, or in some cases deceased. The play ends on a hopeful note, however, with the characters reviving the joyful outlook on life depicted in the first act.
The most compelling element of Sirker's script is the authentic depiction of the United States government's utter inability to assemble a proper recovery effort. Unfortunately, as written it receives only a small percentage of focus. Director Lorca Peress takes the two prominent scenes on this front and stages them memorably. The first is the aforementioned argument between Teacher Alice and the heartless leader of the refugee center (a noteworthy Frederick Mayer, who fittingly doubles as the hurricane). The leader demands an increasingly bizarre set of requirements before any of the refugees will be considered for, much less receive, aid. The scene's tone edges on condemning satire, and offers interesting possibilities if extended to the rest of the play.
The second is a fragmented recitation of horrors by those who remained in the city (some dead, others living). They describe the torment of the storm itself, then the chaos that followed. One woman committed suicide rather than submit to a mob of men chasing her. A young man resorted to murder in order to save his mother. Another woman rescued dozens of fellow refugees by stealing a bus, only to be threatened with arrest upon reaching the state border.
If only such moments received more stage time! The first act takes much too long introducing the principal characters, the establishing scenes sorely lack energy. The inclusion of a spirit seems excessive—its only function is to voice the "lessons" Teacher Alice learns to survive and rebuild. It proves difficult however to identify or empathize with Alice. She appears resigned ahead of time to the destruction that will befall her city, and barely stirs at the sight of the apparition much less the dire news it brings. The result is that even as a refugee she seems unshaken.
The rest of the cast is committed but struggles with the imbalance of the writing. In the "horrors" scene, one actor laments the loss of his truck immediately after another details the gruesome death of a loved one. The discrepancy in subject matter proves jarring. Nonetheless, to the actors' and director's credit, they find a way to endow the characters' losses with full weight. A more natural order and build to the scene would allow the images to hit more powerfully.
The design elements hold potential but are not fully realized. Projections on the back wall establish the setting of early scenes and later show photos of post-Katrina New Orleans, however more could have been done. Musical choices for heightened moments are too recognizable and, while appropriate in tone, I found myself jerked from the world of the play.
MultiStages brings to fruition a worthwhile story in Hell and High Water, and it is obvious that their creative team has put effort into this production. Further attention to the script and design elements will help the production resonate more fully.