If crisis lends itself well to drama, it’s not hard to imagine the variety of plays that might come out of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, from an epic a la Angels in America, for example, that would follow a diverse group of individuals as they respond to the crisis, to a Titanic-style melodrama, perhaps, about a plucky Louisiana debutante and her tragic gang-leader lover. But just two and a half years after Hurricane Katrina, with much of the devastated areas still in states of deep disrepair, we’re not yet ready for a sweeping epic. The disaster itself is still too close, the extent of its overreaching effects still too unknown. That uncertainty does not mean, of course, that contemporary playwrights can’t or shouldn’t create new works dealing with the horrors of the hurricane. Playwright Beau Willimon takes a smart approach to the task in his short new drama Lower Ninth, currently playing at the Flea Theater, by maintaining an extremely tight focus on three characters immediately following the storm.
Even the physical landscape of the play is small: Lower Ninth opens with Malcolm (James McDaniel) and E-Z (Gaius Charles) trapped on a rooftop, praying over a body wrapped in garbage bags, and awaiting rescue. Their shingled roof, by set designer Donyale Werle, provides enough levels to create interesting stage pictures without undermining the feeling of entrapment so fundamental to the piece.
E-Z and Malcolm wait out the heat on the roof, stranded with a body and a Bible, and spend much of the play contemplating each. They run through a series of expected tropes (“I’m happy you found God. But I wanna know when God is gonna find us”) that, while not exactly original or enlightening, carry the characters along on their quests for literal and spiritual salvation that make up the backbone of the play.
The actors, all accomplished film and television stars, fit right at home within the play’s focused scope, crafting natural characters with nuanced fears and desperations. Their ease with the material – and one another – allows for the welcome humor and surprising lightness that pervade much of the piece. McDaniel’s Malcolm evokes kind authority as a drug addict turned patriarch to Charles’ E-Z, a matter-of-fact teenager trying hard to act tough, though Charles never quite reaches the levels of anger that E-Z supposedly exudes. In his brief scene as Lowboy, Gbenga Akinnagbe imbues his character with a groundedness that appropriately resists the scene’s potential sentimentality.
Save for a few choice moments, director Daniel Goldstein brings out playfulness in the text. In doing so, he both isolates the play’s scenes of true horror and permits the characters to come across as endearingly sympathetic. In a drama like Lower Ninth, with a focus on an intimate group of characters literally struggling for survival, it’s important that we want, as an audience, to root for them. We do.
Some of the play’s most poignant moments occur not during the scenes themselves but in the interludes between them. Rather than traditional fades to black to distinguish between scenes, Lower Ninth scenes are divided by the actors arranging themselves into new positions beneath dimmed lights, underscored by a single trumpet. The music, composed by Aaron Meicht, lends the play an appropriate Creole feel while making what would otherwise be numerous transitions into their own complete moments. Goldstein does not shy away from holding such moments longer than might seem absolutely necessary, and the results are arrestingly evocative of the endless waiting the characters face. They have no relief from it, and the transitions keep the audience from experiencing that release either.
Audiences, of course, will be able to escape the world once the play ends. It might not leave them with much to talk about, but it will provide them likable characters to watch in an impossibly difficult situation for the brief seventy minutes of the play’s duration. What the future holds for the victims of the storm is, as for their real life counterparts, uncertain.