By Punch Preview Correspondent Lindsey Clark
When the curtain goes up on Forum Theatre’s latest production, it’s been 9 months since Hurricane Katrina blew through New Orleans. Evidence of her devastating encounter with the Big Easy is still everywhere – foundations sit empty where homes once stood, debris clutters the streets, and power and running water are almost distant memories to the residents of the hardest hit areas of town. Boarded up windows mark the houses of those who were displaced to another city – many of whom will not return – and those who have come back find that there isn’t much to come back to. Life in the Lower 9th Ward wasn’t easy to begin with, so when Katrina pushed the levees along the Industrial Canal to a breaking point, those who hadn’t been able to safely evacuate faced the storm with grit and unflenching spirit. There is a reason that the word “fierce” is so often used in reference to the way New Orleanians love their city, and in playwright Dan Dietz’s Clementine in the Lower 9, fierce is exactly the word I would use to describe his story of one family’s struggle to rebuild their home – and their lives – following the unimaginable tragedy the storm left in its wake.
Clementine has New Orleans in her blood. Her home in the Lower 9th has been in her family for generations and no hurricane stands a chance of wrenching it from her hands – even if it means she has to put it back together brick by brick. After nearly a year apart, she eagerly awaits the return of her husband, Jaffy (Jeff Allin), who left the city to find work in Houston after employment all but dried up along with the waters left behind by Katrina. A musician and a former junkie, Jaffy never seems to take life too seriously, and his happy-go-lucky attitude doesn’t find much of a welcome with Clementine (Caroline Stefanie Clay in a equally tough and tender performance), who has become more than a little hardened in the aftermath of the storm, or his son, Reginald (played by an excellent Thony Mena), who has never fully forgiven him for a childhood spent watching his father chose drugs over his own family. To make matters worse, Jaffy brings Cassy (Megan Graves), a nearly catatonic teenage addict, back from Houston with him and insists that she may be the answer to their financial troubles - pointing to the $10,000 winning lottery ticket she told him to buy as proof. Her presence is merely tolerated by both Clem (as Jaffy affectionately calls her) and Reginald until Cassy reveals a secret Jaffy’s been hiding that is more devastating to the family than any storm.
Infused with soulful jazz, music is the backbone of Lower 9 - it is what brought Jaffy and Clementine together in the first place, and music is what will heal both of them in the worst of times. Scott Patterson narrates the story with lyrical delivery, channeling the spirit of some of New Orleans’ greatest performers in the sad, sweet songs woven throughout the play. The story unfolds on stage under the gaping hole Jaffy made in the roof of the house on the night of the storm so they could escape the rising flood waters - a constant, almost watchful reminder of what they lost – that nine months later still hasn’t been repaired or even covered up. What Katrina took from them cannot be replaced by an insurance check or repaired by nails and plywood, and despite all of their best efforts to keep going, as Clementine woefully points out, some things are just wrecked past fixing.
Clementine in the Lower 9 is a Forum Theatre production and the company performs in residence at Roundhouse Theatre (8641 Colesville Road) in Silver Spring. Derek Goldman directs the stellar cast, and thanks to scenic designer Lisi Stoessel, there is little separation between audience and actors, making Lower 9 a deeply intimate and moving theatre experience. You don’t need to be a New Orleans native for Dietz’s story to hit home – but you do need to see it before its run ends on June 15th. Tickets are available here and performances are Wednesday through Saturday at 8 PM and Sundays at 2 PM. An additional show will run Monday, June 10 at 7:30, and following the June 14th show, Scott Patterson will give a one-night concert (check out his music at afrohouse.org). Next up at Forum is the T party, which closes out the 2012/13 Season and will begin its run on July 18th.
As the Punch Premiere Correspondent, Lindsey covers all things music and theater related. When not writing for Pamela’s Punch, Lindsey has a seriously sweet gig as Executive Assistant at the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities (www.pcah.gov). Aside from writing and seeing as much live music as possible, you can usually find her on a running trail, in front of a painting, staring at her dog, Lincoln, or hanging out with her big sister and fellow Punch Correspondent Niki Clark. Follow her on twitter @lindseykayclark. Contact Lindsey at firstname.lastname@example.org.