A True History of the Johnstown Flood

Playwright Rebecca Gilman contemplates the role of art in depicting disasters.

'A True History of the Johnstown

What odd and solipsistic choices playwright Rebecca Gilman makes in her newest play, “The True History of the Johnstown Flood,” a recounting of a horrific, mostly forgotten disaster she uses to contemplate the role of art in depicting disasters. Following a family acting troupe struggling with its artistic identity, this is a show where one waits and waits for the title flood – it doesn’t occur until the very end of the very long first act – and then keeps waiting for its narrative to take compelling shape after that.

The titular flood occurred in Pennsylvania in 1889, killing more than 2,000. It was caused by breakage in a dam, created in the mountains above the city for the recreational fishing and sailing enjoyment of the wealthy members at the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, including such hoi polloi as Andrew Mellon and Andrew Carnegie.

At the start of the play, a family of siblings — Richard (Cliff Chamberlain), James (Stephen Louis Grush) and Fanny Baxter (Heather Wood) — have been hired by the club to perform. Known as the first family of the theater, the Baxters are living off the fumes of their more creative, and now late, parents, performing their father’s outdated romances and using the elaborate sets he created and which remain their primary draw.

Richard hopes to land an investment partner who can help guide and update their act, maybe into the line of popular spectacles. James has returned from Europe smitten with the social realism of Hauptmann’s “The Weavers,” and keeps writing plays that are little more than ripoffs of the story. And Fanny is enjoying the romantic attentions of strapping, uber-wealthy Walter Lippincott (Lucas Hall).

The plays-within-a-play here are especially ineffective; they’re so stilted and silly that it’s difficult to be particularly concerned about their future artistic options. And there’s not much for us to grip onto outside that story, since the romance between Walter and Fanny remains insistently superficial.

The second act, following the flood, turns toward a social realism style, with the characters mostly covered horribly in mud, and Richard coughing more and more. Urged on by Clara Barton, engaging in the Red Cross’s first disaster response, the family follows James’ lead to craft an agit-prop tale of realistic suffering, screaming for the audience to charge up the mountain and take revenge on the blameworthy members of the resort. Nobody follows.

Gilman has certainly displayed plenty of talent for peeling away layers of character — the latent racism within a liberal academic dean in “Spinning into Butter,” how fear can completely alter perception and morality in stalking drama “Boy Gets Girl.” But here, the characters don’t change much. And as a work questioning the very purpose of the theater itself, this play just doesn’t dig very deeply, staying surprisingly schematic.

Part of the problem is that the work seems so utterly an act of digression. We may see a single Lithuanian couple, one of the immigrant families who came to Johnstown to work in the mills, but other than that we really don’t get to know a single resident of the town itself. Imagine a play about the Haitian earthquake that only follows the suffering of visiting American artists.

In fact, while Gilman’s heart seems very much with social realism — James’ speeches are more passionate, he sees the underlying causes and wants to ask why this event happened — the truth is that “The True History of the Johnstown Flood” works far better in the realm of spectacle, thanks to the extraordinary sets from Walt Spangler, which capture 19th century drama, Pullman and freight train cars, and a flooded town, all mud and gray.

As one of the characters says about the Baxters’ silly romance, the best reason to see this show is, without question, the scenery.

A True History of the Johnstown Flood

Goodman Theater, Chicago; 856 seats; $76 top

  • Production: A Goodman Theater presentation of a play in two acts by Rebecca Gilman. Directed by Robert Falls.
  • Crew: Set, Walt Spangler; costumes, Ana Kuzmanic; lighting, James F. Ingalls; music and sound, Richard Woodbury; production stage manager, Alden Vasquez; stage manager, Jamie Wolfe. Opened March 22, reviewed March 21, 2010; runs through April 18. Running time: 2 HOURS, 30 MIN.
  • Cast: Richard - Cliff Chamberlain Fanny - Heather Wood James - Stephen Louis Grush Walter - Lucas Hall Colleen - Sarah Charipar Nathan - Cedric Mays With: Janet Ulrich Brooks, Randall Newsome
  • Music By: