BWW Reviews: Milwaukee's OCTOBER, BEFORE I WAS BORN Portrays Human Frailty
The human spirit can supposedly thrive on strength and courage, and perhaps this is mistakenly assumed during any tragedy. In a poignant tribute to human resiliency, Milwaukee Chamber Theatre presented the Midwest premiere of October, Before I Was Born written by Lori Matthews in a new production funded by the company's Montgomery Davis Play Development Series in the Studio Theater at the Broadway Theatre Center .
Wisconsin playwright Lori Matthews's chilling new play recounts a fictional revision of the October 4,1960 explosion at the chemical plant of the Tennessee Eastman Company in rural Kingsport,Tennessee, Matthews's hometown. Based loosely on her grandmother's reminisces told to Matthews which began...the October before you were born,...the playwright presents three characters from the recesses of her own storytelling: Mother Martha, her son Houston, and Martha's daughter in law, Anne. The trio waits anxiously to hear about friends and family surviving the disaster when Eastman's Aniline building exploded in glass and flames to devastate the landscape of an entire town.
The tragedy also "blew up" Anne's neighborhood celebration, as she rails, "the world exploded at her baby shower." All her shower gifts were quickly thrown in a box, everyone sent home, which Anne then interprets as an ominous sign for her baby while well into her seventh month of pregnancy.This perhaps happens to be the baby girl inside Anne, who will eventually write this play and envision what had happened during this horrific tragedy. Individuals who become uncomfortable in the uncertainty of their survival, and their loved ones, a situation instantly placed before Martha, Houston and Anne as they wait to hear the outcome of the explosion and question how their futures will be in the tragedy's aftermath.
As these three characters struggle to make sense of present events, Matthews's play evokes a universal feeling of helplessness when any disaster strikes, natural, industrial or military. How does one cope? Wait for the inevitabilities in life that will now transform their tomorrows, with possible impending death for their loved ones? What will Anne do if the father of her baby dies? How will Martha survive when her husband will be missing from the recliner where he falls asleep every night? Will Houston find his courage to help while rebuilding these lives?
In the play's period kitchen interior realistically designed by Charles J. Trieloff II, Raeleen Macmillion commands the stage with her warm humanity, straightforward and loving when playing Martha. A mother concerned for her own husband, as well as her unborn grandchild. When even Martha's confidence dwindles for a positive outcome as she watches the news on a neighbor's television set, Macmillion evocatively relates to her daughter in law of an unspoken devastation that might happen in her own life, and says: "Who are we to tell God what to do? We need strength and courage."
Ken T. Williams covers Houston with a understandable confusion to a personal direction in his life, a worthy performance as the black sheep son attempting to figure out what to do and the choices before and after this tragedy. While he overtly disdains his prissy sister in law Anne, he also harbors a sincere desire to overcome his dark past and help her should her husband die in the tragedy.
The most difficult character to grasp in Matthews's story can be the pregnant Anne, portrayed by the lovely April Paul. At times, Paul can he hardhearted instead of merely frightened or stressed. Yet, in the second half of the performance, Paul's Anne resonated with more believability and compassion, for those around her and her baby, as she tries "to take responsibility for her life."
C. Michael Wright's direction mingled with Matthews's script allows the audience no comfort in a tidy conclusion when the palpable uncertainty to these mass human tragedies comes alive on stage. What does one do during these horrific events? Just listen or stare at the pictures on a media screen, especially in the 21st century, where destruction can be endlessly paraded before an audience? Or sit and wait to show strength and courage?
Anne demands "I don't want strength and courage," she wants her life to continue unfazed into happy ever after, something she has worked hard for. Houston protests against "nastiness everywhere, and men [that] trade their lives for money, acting like sheep." Men scratching for a living to feed their families in unsafe conditions ruled by huge corporations that require men and women to work for minor compensation with little regard for their humanity And Martha; Martha, only desires to have everyone home, safe, at the family table to eat her meatloaf.