To be sure, the fury that hurricane Katrina dumped on New Orleans in 2005 is worthy of a Greek moment—some have even suggested the storm was more: an epic expression of God’s disdain. In Clementine in the Lower 9 playwright Dan Dietz picks up on that theme of divine disgust and creates a fiery, passionate drama that ties the city’s tragedy to the familial and the personal. Clementine is now making its area premiere at Forum Theatre.
…’Clementine in the Lower 9′ will knock your socks off with its emotional intensity…
Stealing from the best—Athen’s tragic poet Aeschylus—Dietz has created his own Clytemnestra, who awaits her hero husband Agamemnon’s return from his war against Troy. With him he brings the slave girl seer Cassandra. With him, he also brings a horrible secret, a secret that contributes to his murder.
Although Dietz’s Greek parallel rings hollow without the requisite resonance and depth, Forum’s Clementine in the Lower 9 will knock your socks off with its emotional intensity, as it explores those Sophie-like choices we all must sometimes make in moments of crisis, choices we then all must find some way to live with for the rest of our lives.
Directed with a fine touch by Derek Goldman, Clementine delves into the post-Katrina world of Clementine and Jaffy, a couple played by Caroline Stefanie Clay and Jeff Allin. Clay’s Clementine is all passion and no nonsense, a woman with deep roots in the Lower 9th Ward. Once a musical prodigy, she sacrificed her musical self on the altar of motherhood when her and Jaffy’s son Reginald (Thony Mena) was born. That musical self barely flickers now as Clementine, an RN, attempts to hold onto the family home in the misery of flood ravaged New Orleans.
Allin’s Jaffy captures the once drug addicted horn player with a slick, yet home spun good cheer. Although his Jaffy might have reflected a little more deeply the character’s early life lessons and family scars, Allin does portray with grace the musician’s fluidity and smoothness.
Mena’s Reginald is most assuredly his momma’s son, portraying the Columbia prelaw student with an earthy centeredness. His scenes with the Cassandra-like Cassy (Megan Graves), particularly when she enters her prophetic mode, give the character a necessary vulnerability.
Ms. Graves has one of the biggest challenges in the show, even though her character remains silent for the most part. A junkie who has acquired the power of prophecy—Jaffy brings her home in part because she helped him win $10,000 in the lottery—her Cassy remains on the edge of believability. In fact, because the play simply drops her into this post-hurricane “realistic” world like a mystical portal, you will find yourself needing to accept her like one as well. Ms. Graves embodies the mysterious Cassy with an awkward ghost-like fear.
Finally, there is the thematic center of the play, the Chorus, or rather the spirit of bluesmen past played by Scott Patterson. Mr. Patterson is the consummate entertainer. His musical numbers are heartfelt riffs on the pain that love endures.
Forum Theatre and director Goldman have put together an excellent production team, beginning with composer Justin Ellington. His musical score for the show sets more than the production’s mood; it sets its musical stage. Scenic designer Lisi Stoessel has taken full advantage of Forum’s Round House Silver Spring space, creating both a house and a city devastated by the floods. Meanwhile, lighting designer Andrew F. Griffin added visual clarity to the setting, plus a spectacular starry night.
Whereas the Agamemnon tragedy wrestled with the tensions between family and war, and the difficult choices the individual must make and suffer in that arena, Clementine in the Lower 9 ironically focuses on the tensions between family and art, or in this case family and music. If playwright Dietz had elected to delve into that tension with more nuance and insight, accepting the challenge his Katrina / Agamemnon tragic parallel demands, the idea might have been more successful.
As it stands, this Clementine still rivets, so long as one does not spend too much time considering its implications.
Running Time: one hour and 40 minutes without intermission.
Advisory: adult themes and shadowed nudity.
Clementine and the Lower 9 plays at Forum Theatre, Round House Silver Spring, 8641 Colesville Road, Silver Spring, MD 20910, through June 15. For more information or tickets click here.