“The True History of the Johnstown Flood” Thought Provoking

There is thought provoking entertainment in the Goodman Theatre’s world premiere of “The True History of the Johnstown Flood,” a new play by Northwestern University based writer Rebecca “Spinning into Butter” Gilman.

Directed by Robert Falls, the play runs through April 18.

The drama takes place amid a devastating flood that wiped out the town of Johnstown, Pennsylvania in 1889, leaving 2,200 people dead. The dam that broke was on the property of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, whose membership included the Carnegie, Mellon, Frick families and more than four-dozen other wealthy steel, coal, and railroad magnates from Pittsburgh.

Though the dam was poorly constructed and badly maintained, survivors received no legal compensation.  And nurse Clara Barton, angel of the Civic War battlefield, brought her American Red Cross to assist in its first major national disaster. Those are the facts.

To bring them to life, Goodman uses ingenious sets by Walt Spangler, dramatic lighting by James F. Ingalls and terrifying sound design by Richard Woodbury. They collaborate in a triumph of stagecraft. The set is transformed from a bright and whimsical picture to the chaos and squalor of disaster with absolute magic.

Gillman begins her fictional drama several days before the flood, when a traveling theatrical troupe of three siblings arrive to entertain members of the exclusive club. The actors present an over-the-top melodrama about the Civil War — “Gone With the Wind” on steroids, followed by a bizarre tale set in Mexico.

As plays within the play they are hilarious. Younger brother James, played by Stephen Louis Grush, recently heard the teachings of Karl Marx in Europe and longs to write dramas about oppressed workers and class warfare. Older brother Richard, played by Cliff Chamberlain, doesn’t even enjoy acting, while sweet, naive Fanny, played by Heather Wood, loves their vagabond life.

Into this tightly knit group comes young, wealthy club member Walter Lippincott, played by Lucas Hall, who is smitten with Fanny. When the flood arrives, however, her fate and that of her brothers mirror the tragedy that strikes the town, exposing the vast gulf between well heeled Lippincott and nearly penniless Baxters.

If Gilman paints the difference between haves and have-nots with too broad a brush, still the Goodman’s amazing staging and her setting of the story within a powerful historical event make “The True History of the Johnstown Flood” a worthy evening of theatre.