Andrew Cohen’s set for Flood City, Theater Alliance’s agreeably uncategorizable season-closer, is an installation-art attraction all by itself. From the ceiling of the Anacostia Playhouse’s black box theater, he’s suspended chairs and lamps and knickknacks that look like they’re being carried off by vengeful waters—waters like the ones that killed more than 2,200 people in the steelmaking community of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, after a dam on the Little Conemaugh River collapsed in 1889. Beneath that caravan of debris, a midcentury console-style jukebox rests on the runway-like stage. Once the show begins, it will signal shifts in setting from the months following the flood to the early 1990s via period-appropriate songs from Metallica, Billy Ray Cyrus, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Sound designer Matthew M. Nielson is due extra credit for the backwards time-slip that’s suggested when R.E.M.’s “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” is subsumed by an instrumental cover performed on banjo.
Natural and economic disasters are the tectonic forces that shape communities, and Gabrielle Reisman—a playwright who splits her time between New York and New Orleans, both of which have suffered mass-casualty calamities in her lifetime—examines their effects on Johnstown over the course of a century. Press coverage of those displaced by the 1889 flood yielded an outpouring of sympathy (and federal rebuilding money), which brought the town back to life only to see its steel plants shuttered a century later. Reisman’s play, a sort of creative obituary, hopscotches among survivors of the disaster in the 19th century and steelworkers drinking to their uncertain future in late 20th.
Director Jenna Duncan also works as a casting director, and her facility for finding talent that plays well together is in full bloom here. Without the sheer chemistry of the performers, this piece might be unbearably sad. While it’s the temporal panorama that gives Flood City its sense of significance, the 19th century scenes make fuller use of her lively ensemble. These chapters feature Lolita Marie and Kari Ginsburg as a pair of newly childless widows struggling to negotiate their lonely new reality, Jared Shamberger as a just-deputized National Guardsman trying to keep order after martial law is declared, and Ryan Tumulty as a man who woke up after the flood with a pipe stuck in his skull. This bizarre injury appears to have granted him clairvoyance and possibly the ability to heal injuries and compel the truth from those who would withhold it. Carlos Saldaña plays a New York Times reporter who’s not above paying Ginsburg’s Stacey to pose as a corpse, rationalizing that his staged photographs will convey the genuine suffering of the region. It’s a breach of journalistic ethics on his part, but Reisman’s artistic licence is current and valid, and her portrait of a town molded by tragedy is one you won’t soon forget. —Chris Klimek
To June 17 at 2020 Shannon Place SE. $30–$40. (202) 241-2539. theateralliance.com.