A major environmental disaster in the Deep South causes untold economic and human damage, exacerbated by political string-pulling that manipulates relief efforts and victimizes those least able to protect themselves, in Marcus Gardley’s timely “On the Levee.” Centering not on Hurricane Katrina or the recent BP oil spill but on the disastrous but relatively forgotten Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, the play raises many provocative questions — too many, alas, for the author to effectively address. Even so, Gardley and director Lear deBessonet give audiences an inventive and engrossing evening (at LCT3’s remarkably low $20 top).
Play is based on historical fact; heavy rains breached levees along the Mississippi River in 1927, causing severe flooding, hundreds of deaths and millions of dollars’ worth of damage. The action is set in Greenville, Miss., where the black population was ordered to an unbroken levee and stranded without water or food. When rescue boats arrived, they were barred from boarding at the behest of rich cotton planters who feared the loss of cheap labor.
Chief among the plotlines is the struggle between two historical characters, LeRoy Percy (Michael Siberry), a former U.S. senator who controlled the cotton interests, and his son Will (Seth Numrich), a WWI vet appointed by Dad to head to head relief efforts. But Gardley introduces too many plotlines; several are quite intriguing, but few are developed in a satisfying manner. (The unspoken sparks between young Percy and “a local bachelor” named L’Amour? The apparently symbiotic relationship between the senator and his housemaid, with whom he shares a cigar before she flees to Chicago? The socialite who stumbles upon a light-skinned girl and encourages her to powder her face and run away with her?) Gardley gives us sometimes tantalizing glimpses, but he seems to be continually whisked away to a new page and a new chapter.
Director deBessonet, who is credited as conceiving the play, does a fine job of staging in close collaboration with her worthy designers. There’s extended use of shadow puppets and original animation by Kara Walker, and deBessonet contrives an eerily effective stage picture of the flooded town to end act one. Play is accompanied by a bluesy score of piano and guitar music, both vocal and instrumental, by Todd Almond. (Lincoln Center Theater, which is usually so very meticulous about the details of their physical productions, somehow slips up by displaying a clearly branded contemporary Japanese piano in a 1927 Mississippi juke joint.)
Performances are strong from the 12-player ensemble. Standouts include Numrich (who made a memorable impression last year in Rattlestick’s “Slipping”); Siberry; Dion Graham and Harriett D. Foy as the senator’s conflicted household retainers; and Broadway veteran Chuck Cooper, who spikes interest in the opening scene as an elderly citizen and later provides humor and some not surprisingly fine singing as the town preacher.
LCT3’s stated goal is to bring a new generation of playwrights, directors and designers to prominence in fully staged, moderately budgeted productions at a popular price. “On the Levee” does just that, offering welcome exposure and an impressive group of actors to Gardley and deBessonet.