I'd never been to The Goodman Theatre, so when my pal Jeni offered me a free ticket to A True History of the Johnstown Flood (written by Rebecca Gilman, directed by Robert Falls), I snizzatched it up real quick and spent a whole week looking forward to a rare night on the town with a groovy friend and some high qual-i-tay theatre, bereft of the looming presence of the I'm-a-college-student-I-shouldn't-buy-anything-besides-school-supplies-and-food guilt.
I knew very little about the show or Ms. Gilman's work beforehand, so even though I had no basis upon which to cultivate a judgement, I was amazed at the bizarreness of the first act. The story of three siblings carrying on the name of their family's once great theater troupe, traveling the country with their out-of-date repertoire of plays written by their father was spliced with their performances of the antiquated vignettes and even though the actors were all great, the most apparent characteristic of the overall show for me was the inconsistency in tone. The plays within the play were really dull and filled with racial slurs and stereotypes that I felt sort of uncomfortable laughing about. Even though I could acknowledge that they were to have been written about the 1860s, they were offensive, but not in a way that was original enough to be funny or entertaining. The slapstick, over-the-top approach to the plays was jarring and obnoxious in comparison to the dark, serious tone of the rest of the piece. I think the concept of the show within a show is an interesting one, but Gilman's poor execution was disappointing and awkward. That being said, I did enjoy seeing the characters evolve as the show progressed. Seeing each person change and grow as they were forced to adapt to the sudden onslaught of devastation caused by the bursting of the South Fort Dam was really interesting.
Although I found something to appreciate in each set and costume, the most moving technical demonstration of the show occurred towards the end of the first act when the dam burst. The lights went black as the sound of an entire town being destroyed by millions of gallons of water filled the theater. People called out to their families, train cars were ripped from their tracks, iron infrastructures were bent and trees were unearthed. The absolutely terrifying mix of sounds continued on for what felt like ages. The experience of sitting in the dark with the cacophony of death and destruction overwhelming every possible bit of space in the theater was one of the few moments in my life where I felt completely moved by an audio effect. The award-winning Richard Woodbury designed the sound for the show. 'Twas brilliant, RW.