BWW Reviews: Clementine in the Lower 9 Sings a Blues Riff on Katrina Now Thru Oct. 30th

A bucket of New Orleans Mardi Gras beads, now a mocking memory of happier times, sit in front of what remains of a house - and one family - in the lower Ninth Ward after the storm of the century: Hurricane Katrina. Playwright Dan Deitz at first couldn't conceive of a dramatic structure big enough to encompass the sheer magnitude of the devastation wrought by the storm, but the muses gave him a flash of inspiration. Only the epic nature of a Greek tragedy, which gives intimate form to universal truths, would suffice. Thus was born Clementine in the Lower Nine, which had its TheaterWorks world premiere at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts last night.

What's a Greek play without a chorus? And what is New Orleans without the blues? In Clementine we never have to find out, as Deitz gives us a delightful blues man (the perfectly cast Kenny Brawner) named Chorus to guide us through the story with powerful commentary and soul deep blues.

He is accompanied by trumpeter John Worley, bassist Richard Duke and drummer Kelly Fasman, musicians who ease in and out of the human tragedy happening on stage, giving us the flavor of New Orleans and speaking to the human condition.

When Katrina happened, blues musicians sang of the tragedy and, like a phoenix rising from the ashes, the blues rose up from a watery grave to express the despair of the people and to help with the healing process - as it has always done. Moving and melodic, Justin Ellington's songs capture the cadence of the show as well as the capriciousness of life and love.

"Love breathes life into you/and love breaks you down/love puts a spell on you/and love spins you round...good goddamn love," sings Chorus at the piano that has landed miraculously in the front yard of Clementine's obliterated house. Laiona Michelle gives a deep, multivalent performance as Clementine, a nurse and piano prodigy (though she hasn't played in years) who survived the hellacious hurricane only to confront a storm of another kind as her husband Jaffy (Jack Koenig) returns from Houston with a girl junkie (Jayne Deely) in tow whom he claims is a prophetess.

With faint echoes of the Greek myth about Agamemnon sounding underneath, Clementine is outraged and so is their son, Reginald (the amazingly talented Matt Jones). Although Clementine holds onto a spark of hope that her husband, a former junkie and horn player, will rise to the occasion and provide money for the family, Reginald's faith in his father was doused long before Katrina came along. His bitter resentment toward Jaffy only becomes more pronounced as the little family works together to rebuild their home. Always in The Shadows is the specter of Iffy, the daughter that Jaffy couldn't save as the flood waters swirled around them both.

Scenic Designer J.B. Wilson's set is a window into the catastrophic damage done by the storm and the levees breaking, giving the audience a painful sense of the magnitude involved. A battered and muddy red truck sits atop a heap of debris and, nine months out, plants are already starting to grow out of the refuse. A ghostly, sun-bleached, plastic playhouse bespeaks sadness and we are left to wonder who it belonged to before the storm.  Iffy?

Lighting design by Steven B. Mannshardt works well to convey the somber despair that threatens to overtake the family, while sound designer Jake Rodriguez gives us the storm and night sounds and crystal clear actor's mics that balance perfectly with the onstage band.

Jayne Deely puts in a fine performance as the young junkie Cassy, whose cocaine induced prophecies and declarations have an eerie way of coming true and, though she doesn't talk much, her twitching, tweaked body language certainly fills in the gaps. Jones, who is superb as the smart, college-attending son, has one of the funnier and more touching scenes with Cassy as he seeks to befriend her.

But the pieces don't quite add up to a whole. At one point the junkie prophetess shares a dire prediction with Reginald about something that will happen to him then she collapses in a heap on the floor. When it actually transpires, playwright Deitz never has Reginald acknowledge or even question the phenomenon and the play blithely moves on. As well, Clementine's character arc totters. She's a devoted mother, yet doesn't hesitate to make her son complicit in a plot that would surely be the ruin of his life. If you can remember your Greek mythology then the story makes more sense, but if not, then it can be a stretch.

Abruptly the play ends on a positive note that seems contrived in the face of what came before. While the play explores the nature of death and destruction, as reflected in the hurricane and the pain that the family inflicts on one another, redemption and healing are, in the end only hinted at and not given their full due.

Clementine in the Lower Nine is a study in the havoc that inner turmoil, anger and distrust can create, but there is no satisfying conclusion, and we are left to wonder about the emotional fate of the family. They may be able to fix the walls, but moving forward and not looking back doesn't really seem like something the gods have in mind for them.

Clementine in the Lower 9
A dramatic work by Dan Dietz
Now through Oct. 30
Two hours, 15 minutes
TheatreWorks, Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts
Photo courtesy of Tracy Martin


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From This Author Linda Hodges