BWW Reviews: CLEMENTINE IN THE LOWER NINE at Forum is Haunting, Dynamic

Certainly, human tragedy has been the subject of many a contemporary play. Whether a natural disaster, war, or tragedies of a smaller scale, these are certainly circumstances that offer numerous possibilities for literary exploration. In this regard, Dan Dietz's play, Clementine in the Lower Nine, which considers the predicament of one family in the hard-hit lower 9th ward of New Orleans, Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina, hardly covers completely new ground.

Yet, Dietz's approach to telling the story - infusing elements of Greek mythology (specifically Agamemnon) - allows us to look at the horrific situation in a new way. Weaving in jazz and blues music (Justin Ellington), he captures the spirit of New Orleans and its rich cultural history. Forum Theatre's production of this riveting drama is - like the company itself - ambitious, heartfelt, and raw. Offering some tour-de-force performances and boatloads of creativity, it's a shining example of what's right with DC theatre today.

Derek Goldman's (Director) innovatively staged production immerses the audience into the world of post-Katrina New Orleans (the set design by Lisi Stoessel and the lighting design by Andrew F. Griffin are particularly helpful in this regard). Remnants of a family's past are strewn throughout the intimate black box theatre and it's apparent that the house is missing a few walls. Portions of a roof remain, but there's a hole in it, from which some of the family escaped the flooding.

We meet matriarch and nurse Clementine (the sassy and confident Caroline Stefanie Clay, who gives one of the best performances of the season) and her mature and smart son Reginald (Thony Mena) as they try to rebuild their house and await their husband/father's - Jaffy (a prickly Jeff Allin) - return from Texas, where he 'sought' employment following the storm. When he returns, he brings along his treasured trumpet and a mysterious young teenager who he calls Cassy (a chilling Megan Graves). Old wounds rear to the surface and secrets are revealed - with some help from Cassy; they all try to cope with their newfound realities as their pasts continue to haunt them. Heavily influenced by Greek drama, this play also uses a chorus (attention-worthy musician Scott Patterson) to comment on the difficult situation.

Despite the strong acting turns from all involved as well as the creative design elements, Goldman could not overcome some of the play's inherent weaknesses. The rehashing of the themes of loss can get tiresome after a while - we can only be reminded of the immense loss so many times - and moments do tend to drag in the middle of the show (particularly as a former patient of Clementine's appears in the form of Scott Patterson). Still, the powerful images that Dietz evokes with his words are well-served in this production. In lesser hands, it's entirely possible that further weaknesses in the play would be observable. Goldman and company deserve an immeasurable amount of credit for bringing out the best of this play and putting forth a production that's likely not to be soon forgotten.

Running Time: 1 hour and 40 minutes with no intermission.

Clementine in the Lower Nine plays through June 15, 2013, at Round House Theatre's black box performance space in Silver Spring (8641 Colesville Rd, Silver Spring, MD). For tickets, call the box office at 240-644-1100 or purchase them online.

Photo Credit: Melissa Blackall (Caroline Stefanie Clay and Jeff Allin with Thony Mena in background.)

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From This Author Jennifer Perry