BWW Review: Timeline Theatre Company's Chicago Premiere SPILL Drills Into the Human Story Behind 2010 BP Oil Disaster

Timeline Theatre Company's Chicago premiere of Leigh Fondakowski's documentary-style SPILL aims to show audiences the untold side of the story surrounding the April 2010 blowout and subsequent explosion of the Deepwater Horizon, a BP oil rig, in the Gulf of Mexico. The resulting oil spill was the worst in United States history, leaching nearly 5 million barrels of oil into the Gulf, leaving thousands of oiled animals for dead, and disrupting the livelihoods of many who relied on the body of water for fishing. Fondakowski's play aims to accomplish what great theater should: the interweaving of the personal and political. The play shows the human side of a widely publicized issue that audiences may previously have held at a distance. And Fondakowski, a member of the Tectonic Theater Project and the head writer on THE LARAMIE PROJECT, wisely and movingly devotes a good amount of SPILL's material to a lesser-known consequence of this devastating environment event: the lives of the 11 men who were taken in the explosion. These men were fathers, sons, siblings, and husbands who had inherently risky careers --but in the wake of the BP oil rig explosion and subsequent spill, they were soon forgotten by the mass media.

SPILL would benefit from drilling down even further on the humanity in this story and excising some of the more technical and expositional material that accompanies it. And, certainly, the play could stand to trim its overall run time, too. I suspect, though, that after conducting hundreds of hours of interviews with those affected by the spill that Fondakowski and her team of dramaturgs (Reeva Wortel, Sarah Lambert, and Kelli Simpkins -- who appears in the production) were attached to the insight provided by their interview subjects. As a result, though, SPILL occasionally veers in a direction that reads too technical and terminology-laden. Certainly, the BP oil spill is an incredibly complicated event -- and the play is right to convey that complexity. And it seems fair to ask audiences to be intellectually engaged and have some prior knowledge of topical events to fully appreciate a play. But SPILL sometimes takes this a bit too far, when really it is most compelling when it gets at the human side of this story --which requires no technical explanation.

Kelli Simpkins cleverly anchors the play in the role of Narrator, reminding us both of the journalistic nature of the play and also the idea that no news story is ever unbiased. And while SPILL represents many different viewpoints with its chosen characters, this theatrical device makes clear that the play, too, cannot cover all facets of the complicated issue at hand. Simpkins also bestows a genuine humanity to the Narrator. When she "interviews" the other characters in the play onstage, she appears wholly present and affected by what they tell her. And as with the eight other members of SPILL's ensemble, the versatile Simpkins also takes on a few other roles, including an especially poignant turn as Arleen Weise, who is the mother of Adam -- a victim of the explosion.

The story of Shelley Anderson, wife of rig worker Jason, forms the emotional core of SPILL, and ensemble member Justine Turner deftly handles the role. Turner has a heart-wrenching quiver in her voice as she talks about her character's late husband, portrayed by Chris Rickett. The moments of interaction between Shelley and Jason are among the most powerful in all of SPILL. The less interesting characters in SPILL are evidently the ones who feel less human, such as then-BP CEO Tony Hayward, portrayed by David Prete in SPILL's second act. The family members of the oil rig workers are by far the most emotional and powerful onstage in SPILL and make the play's story unique.

The modest production values in SPILL also emphasize the humanity in the play. Sarah Lambert's set design clearly gives the feel of the oil rig, even though the rig itself is comprised of a few metal set pieces. André Pluess's sound design also calls on the ensemble to produce some of the effects themselves, again emphasizing the human angle of the piece. Betsy Adams's lighting design works nicely in tandem with these other elements -- the lighting is a bit stark to highlight the severity of the situation. And Mike Tutaj's thoughtful projections allow audiences to see underwater footage of BP's oil barrels in the Gulf -- reminding us of the environmental devastation.

SPILL is at its best when highlighting the families of the lost rig workers. The play becomes most powerful both emotionally and intellectually when reminding us of the very human cost of BP's actions.

Timeline Theatre Company's production of SPILL runs through December 19 at Stage 773, 1225 West Belmont Avenue. Tickets are $38-$51. Timelinetheatre.com or 773-327-5252.

Photo Credit: Lara Goetsch

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From This Author Rachel Weinberg

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