Angelique Boyd – A True History of the Johnstown Flood

June 17, 2010 in Cindy Bandle Young Critics by Cindy-Bandle-Young-Critics

 True History of the Johnstown Flood:  Doesn’t Live to Expectation by Angelique Boyd

A True History of the Johnstown Flood was another mediocre play that the Goodman Theatre has introduced.   I was expecting a performance that would have stayed with me, but unfortunately, the play had little impact on me. This is because the little conflicts surrounding the main conflict, the Johnstown Flood, overwhelmed the play and made the flood unneeded in the plot. Following a family theatre troupe through their point-of-view of Johnstown, Pennsylvania during the flood in 1889 should have had a long-lasting affect.

In A True History of the Johnstown Flood, the Baxter troupe is made up of two brothers (Richard and James) and a sister (Fanny) with the help of Nathan, their African-American piano player, and Colleen, who helps with everything needed. Since the play is set in 1889, the acting styles of the actors are very melodramatic and their huge gestures are very comical in today’s standards. Although the melodramatic performances didn’t get the response it was made for, I still think it was well done. It showed that theatre was an art form that took people away from reality; in this play, reality had issues that needed to be addressed, and in the 19th century, theatre never addressed real issues.

The main issue seen and partially discussed in the play was that the officials, rich men who benefited from the booming earnings of the Industrial Revolution, of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, located in the Alleghany Mountains and 80 miles from Pittsburg, made the decision to clog the screen in the dam of a manmade lake to prevent the fish from escaping into another reservoir. Torrential rains caused the water to rise, which caused the dam to overspill and cause the flood.                                      

James, the youngest brother in the troupe, went to Europe for a summer, and the plays he saw made him re- think the type of stories theatre should tell. After the flood hit Johnstown, Clara Barton of the American Red Cross told Richard and James to bring the troupe together to perform for the victims of the flood to heal them emotionally. This was the chance for James to write a type of play that he wanted to write, and tell a story that he wanted to tell, so he discussed how the officials were at fault.                        

From reading reviews of the play by Chris Jones and Richard Zoglin and watching the playwright’s own explanation on the Goodman website, I learned that playwright Rebecca Gilman was trying to show the audience the power artists have when it comes to natural disasters or any other political or social conflict. This is a good topic, and, being an artist myself, I truly appreciate her point, but I think she could have approached this idea differently. The reason being is that she has this topic working a long side a flood incident, which is so big that it has to have a major part in the play. The audience expects the flood to be a major part of the play, but in Johnstown Flood, I don’t feel like the flood was discussed and explored enough to actually be a part of the play. All I saw was the flood (technically heard), the destruction, and how the troupe coped. There was no explanation to how the Johnstown recovered. Instead we saw that Fanny and Walter Lippincott’s relationship was jeopardized by their sex scene after the flood struck Johnstown and that the Baxters don’t know what to do with their scenic train car dilapidated. In the last scene, you see Fanny holding her baby and James coming home from work. The question is what happened in between this scene and the scene before. From how Rebecca Gilman and Director Robert Falls presented it, the flood was an abandoned aspect in the play.

 Although this play has some flaws, it also had some strengths .When the flood struck Johnstown, the sound effects of the water hitting different structures was a very effective scene. The entire theatre was dark, so I felt like buildings, factories, and lives were being ended all around me. It was a moving scene that allowed me and the rest of the audience to empathize with the characters. Set designer Walt Spangler has a good eye for detail and used his knowledge of the time period to make the set realistically appealing.  Also the way historical information was given throughout some of the play, even if something things weren’t described or explored enough flowed into the play.

The True History of the Johnstown Flood was a play that did not live up to my expectations. I think it was the least desirable play I have seen this season. I think Rebecca Gilman’s direction of the story she wanted to tell could have been told differently to tell a compelling story.