The Play About My Dad
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
June 21, 2011
Beautiful writing, striking direction, and a slew of excellent performances await you at The Play About My Dad, the final entry in this year's Americas Off Broadway Festival at 59E59. This new play by Boo Killebrew blends several profoundly moving stories about the catastrophe that was Hurricane Katrina with some meta-theatrical musings about family, perspective, and storytelling. There is much to take away from this ambitious work.
As the title suggests, this is a play that Killebrew has written about her father. Larry Killebrew lived in the town of Pass Christian, Mississippi in August, 2005; that town, right on the Gulf Mexico, was pretty much destroyed by Katrina. Larry is a doctor and he was witness to great tragedy during that violent week. Much of The Play About My Dad is an interwoven chronicle of some of what Larry saw and did.
We meet Mrs. Essie Watson, an elderly lady who Larry says raised him when he was a boy. She's now alone in her house, waiting for the "safe danger" of the coming storm, and also for her son Charlie to arrive from New Orleans to stay with her. Larry invites her to come to the hospital with him, but she's stubborn and wants to stay put—not even his last ditch effort ("They've got cable at the hospital") makes this gallant woman budge.
We also meet Kenny Tyson and Neil Plitt, two EMT workers who happen to be on ambulance duty the night of August 28, when Katrina hits. Kenny and Neil are the same age as Larry's daughter, Boo, and Kenny still has tender feelings for her, although she hasn't been in town for years.
And we meet Jay and Rena Thomas, a young married couple with a five-year-old son named Michael. They've decided to wait out the storm at home, too, rather than fleeing to Georgia like their neighbors. Jay and Rena tell Michael they're going to have a hurricane party, and teach him to count the seconds between lightning and thunder strikes to figure out how far away the danger really is.
I don't think I'm giving anything away when I tell you that some of these people aren't going to survive the hurricane. The power and beauty is not in what happens but rather how Killebrew tells it. There is rich humanity here, and wondrous rich detail as well. Here's Mrs. Essie remembering going fishing with her father when she was a little girl:
We lived on the Bayou and there is nothing quite like those muddy waters at that time of day. It was eerie on that little boat at that hour—not scary, because nothing is scary with your daddy—but it was just a bit eerie. It was also so peaceful. It was so calm and peaceful in the sky, in the reed, and on the surface of the water. It's enough to make you all fussed up, all that peace, because you know that things are wild under the water.
These six people are the heart and soul of Killebrew's play, and they are brought to life with enormous compassion and skill by this cast. Geany Masai inhabits Mrs. Essie, while TJ Witham and Jordan Mahome are supremely convincing as Neil and Kenny, respectively. Juan Francisco Villa and Annie Henk are very moving as parents trying to cover up their bravado and then fear in front of the young son; David Rosenblatt, many years older than five, is astonishingly childlike as Michael.
If what frames and surrounds these remarkable tales—Boo and Larry talking about their own troubled relationship and memories—is less compelling, I think that's at least partly by design. Killebrew juxtaposes her own life journey toward an adult sense of perspective with events far more monumental than any she's personally come into contact with. Characters in the play talk about whether they know "everything they need to know before they die." The Play About My Dad is some of Killebrew's own search for that elusive but important knowledge.
Lee Sunday Evans directs the play on a spare but intriguing set (designed by Kate Sinclair Foster). Lots of the directorial choices work marvelously, but a couple felt very problematic, especially a key scene at the hospital where Larry works that's mostly invisible to about half of the audience. Jay Potter gives a nicely natural performance as Larry, with Anna Greenfield as Boo and Tracey Gilbert in the play's smallest role as Boo's mother. The meta-ness of the family sections of the play didn't quite work for me; I felt it added a layer of artifice rather than unveiling the hoped-for/promised deeper truth. But there's much that's moving and heartfelt and honest in this piece, and Killebrew's playwriting voice—along with those of this talented cast of actors—is certainly worth hearing.