The lights go out and the theatre is dark for a preternaturally long time. The sound of gushing water engulfs us, and we’re savvy enough about the events of August 30, 2005, in New Orleans to know that this is the 18-foot wall of water funneling down the streets of all the neighborhoods fanning out from the levees of Lake Ponchatrain.
James Lee Burke writes in The Tin Roof Blowdown about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina: “From a boat or any other elevated position, as far as the eye could see, New Orleans looked like a Caribbean city that had collapsed beneath the waves ... [The inhabitants] drowned in attics and on the second floors of their houses. They drowned along the edges of Highway 23 when they tried to drive out of Plaquemines Parish. They drowned in retirement homes and in trees and on car tops as they waved frantically at helicopters flying overhead.”
Rising Water, now enjoying its New England debut at the Vineyard Playhouse, is about two of those New Orleans folk trapped by the surge at the top of their homes. Camille (Bonnie Black) and Sugar (Barry M. Press) have been married for more than 30 years, which is to say, forever. Before the catastrophe, they had been muddling along, their relationship perhaps 80 per cent bickering, 100 per cent forgetting, all of it adding up to the supreme joylessness of daily life on the back porch of their lives. And now this: They’ve awakened at two o’clock in the morning to water invading their home. They climb the stairs to their attic and they’re surrounded by cast-off items from the past. A rocking horse. A pink baby blanket packed away in one of the dozens of cardboard cartons. Old Mardi Gras masks.
Camille is clad in white and pink pajama bottoms and a black tank top. “Where’s it from, all this water?” she asks.
Sugar, in black boxers and a ragged white T-shirt replies, “Are you sure you jiggled the toilet handle?”
Camille suggests the levee has crumbled, but Sugar will have none of it: “The U.S. Army built those things!”
His wife knows better as she grimly remarks, “That’s Lake Ponchatrain down there in our living room.”
As the water encroaches steadily up the steps to the attic, it becomes clear this marriage bears more scars than a retired boxer. Allusions to a daughter and a son hint at heartbreak beyond reckoning. And then there was a night long ago when the husband betrayed the wife’s trust so egregiously, there may be no reconciling of the memory to their love. And yet it’s a tribute to that same enduring love, and their surprisingly resilient humanity, that the event was singular, never to be repeated.
At the end of the first act, the couple dismantles the roof vent to allow them access to the roof should the water rise still higher and flood the attic. And thus a third star of the show is introduced into the second act, and that star is the set itself. Those remaining in the theatre at intermission are treated to a special sight: Theatre hands clear the detritus from the attic and then, voila! , sections of sloping ceiling are pushed down to create an exterior roof in the starlight of the darkest night in Louisiana. The audience erupts in applause.
Camille is able to shimmy out onto the roof but for the remainder of the play, the portlier Sugar is only able to project his head, an arm and a shoulder. They see water to the horizon. “It’s so still, so dark, so quiet,” Sugar muses.
We hear the continuous gentle whooshing of water. Stars are punched through the black scrim of sky and a soft blue light glows on the roof and the couple who, for all they know, are the only two people left in their world. Towards the end they wrap themselves in the pink baby blanket, the woman curving her body around the protruding upper extremities of the man. The tableau invites the world to wrap itself around what remains of this family, and to look at our weakened levees and bridges and cities and consider that we’re all in this together.
Playwright John Biguenet was himself, along with his wife, Martha, devastated by the New Orleans disaster, although the couple had fled before the deluge, returning soon thereafter to find their city demolished. Rising Water won the 2006 National New Play Network Commission award, an artistic excellence award from the National Endowment of the Arts, the Big Easy Theater award for best original play, and was nominated for the 2008 Pulitzer in drama.
Ms. Black brings to the part of Camille a sinewy grace and a toughness that we’ve long associated with Southern womanhood. Mr. Press is a lovable, hapless Sugar who veers from tenderness only when he neglects to rein in the bad habits devolving from the primitive elements of his background and genetics. In addition to the previously mentioned third star, the set — and kudos for that to the extraordinary master carpenter, Paul Munafo — the fourth star is the steel guitar of Maynard Silva whose bluesy rifts fill the rafters of the attic, the boundless black night above the drowned city, and the keening silences of the sorrowing couple. Mr. Silva, who has enthralled Vineyard audiences for decades, studied in Memphis with Bukka White and Furry Lewis, and this Southern influence comes through in every note.
M.J. Munafo’s direction, as ever, is incisive and deeply polished. Lighting designer Fred J. Hancock’s work takes on an added luster considering he’s working with, initially, the play of a flashlight, then a single battery-operated lamp and, finally, all the stars shining over the state of Louisiana above a defunct and dark countryside. Kate Hancock is production and properties Manager, Geneva Monks administrative and production assistant, Jim Novack, sound designer, Timothy Toothman, stage manager, Noavakay Wibel, costume designer, and long-time veteran of Playhouse performances, Stephen M. Zablotny is technical director.
Rising Water will be playing through July 12. For reservations, call the box office at 508-696-6300.