Is A True History Of the Johnstown Flood Really a Bang for the Buck? by Joanne Kus
Even with the special effects, thundering sound, and beautiful scenery, A True History of the Johnstown Flood fails to live up to expectations, as the plot leaves the audience wondering about the chain of events. Although the actions and motives of the characters were quite clear, the script was completely void of chronology. At the end of the play, the audience was dumbstruck, forced to imagine the outcome after the final scene. Another factor that may have puzzled the audience was the priorities of the characters at the end of the first act. Although the production was stunning, the script could have used some work.
Set in 1889 in Johnstown, tragedy hits when the dam of a man-made lake breaks, flooding the town and causing one of the greatest catastrophes and loss of civilian life in American history. Directed by Robert Falls and written by Rebecca Gilman, A True History of the Johnstown Flood revolves around the Baxter siblings: The organized Richard (Cliff Chamberlain); his free spirited brother James (Stephen Louis Grush), and their dainty yet brave sister Fanny (Heather Wood). Touring by railcar, the trio travels across the country performing their father’s classic yet outdated plays. While performing at the South Fork Hunting and Fishing Club a young, romantic industrialist by the name of Walter Lippincott (Lucas Hall) takes interest in Fanny. Amongst the large cast of characters, Heather Wood stands out with her bright personality and stage demeanor.
The events unfold at a maddening slow pace, and it’s not until the end of the second act that we are reminded that the flood serves as a crucial event. The plays the Baxters perform give the audience a glimpse of theatre in the late 1800’s, however they derail the play from the climax, and they seem to weaken its effect. A different pacing would have better served Gillman’s script. Another aspect that Gilman could have improved on was the clarification of the amount of time passing in between events, especially before the final scene involving Fanny and James.
The theatrical effects, however, save the production, including the vivid sound and lighting, and most importantly the scenery. Lighting designer James F. Ingalls and sound designer Richard Woodbury have outdone themselves, setting different moods for each part of the play. For example, seconds before the flood scene, the realistic lighting already begins to foreshadow the feeling of dread with the coming of the flood. And once the flood hits, the audience is literally shaken down to the core with the thundering sounds of water crushing everything in its path and the screams of people in terror. All of this is skillfully manipulated along with a gentle mist falling onto the set, reminding the audience of the unyielding rains. The set was a sight to see both before and after the flood, with scenery dropping in for the stand-alone Baxter plays, the velvet lined box car of the train, and the debris of the flood.
Overall, the script doesn’t seem to do the set justice. The strength of the artistic aspects don’t outweigh the flawed progression of the plot, rendering them useless. I would recommend A True History of the Johnstown Flood more for the visuals, rather than for the depth of a play.