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There is probably a great — or at least, a very good — play in the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster and its effect on Louisiana’s Gulf Coast, but Deb Royals’ new play for the Justice Theater Project, presented at Clare Hall, St. Francis of Assisi Church, is curiously diffuse and often bewilderingly static. And while it carries an earnest and vital message and boasts a large cast, it is curiously devoid of drama or individual characters.
I don’t think there are any hard-and-fast rules governing the relatively recent (at least in America) form known as documentary theatre, which can range from the intimacy of Anna Deveare Smith’s Fires in the Mirror and Twilight: Los Angeles to the more epic forms employed by Emily Mann (Execution of Justice) and Moisés Kaufman (Gross Indecency, The Laramie Project). But I do believe that action, and dramatic character, are essential. In Light on the Horizon (a beautiful title encompassing multiple connotations) there are few real characters and very little action.
Please don’t misunderstand me: I believe deeply in the value of shining illumination on the madness of our national drive toward self-immolation, especially as North Carolina is now poised on the brink both of the installation of hydro-fracking and its own embrace of off-shore oil drilling, a threat to the beauty and ecological diversity of the Outer Banks that is far greater, and more potentially disastrous than, the decades-old, unchecked building boom. And I believe in theatre as a social agent as well. There is certainly potential here for powerful drama.
As a dramatist and a director, Royals scores the occasional coup de theatre, as with the effective use of human voices to approximate the hum of the offshore oil rig, the swirling movement and noise of crowd scenes and overheard conversation, or the way she uses 60 seconds of silence to limn the preciousness of time before a very unnatural, natural disaster. But all too often the group scenes feel endless, as in the prologue, in which the cast hold up cloth signs while two young dancers gather them up, one at a time.
Tom Wolf’s physical designs are valuable, both for the weathered boardwalk pier, the shrimping boat “Miss Tilly,” and the Deepwater rig itself, and the use of an on-board monitor is strategic without being overpowering. He also pulls off a handsome fireworks effect with minimal lighting. And in the sizeable cast, Carlos Massey has a majestic presence as Reggie, the play’s nominal compere; Ann Forsthoefel is a strikingly fulsome Gumbo Woman; and John Honeycutt brings quiet authority to his impassioned monologues.
Still, I don’t know what to make of statements like Reggie’s “We were on the cusp of a moment..., a moment lost to our history.” What does this mean? The moments of the Gulf Shore — its evolution from “sportsman’s paradise” to uneasy alliance with petroleum to eventual ruination by that unequal bed-partner — are its history. They reverberate, and concatenate, and isn’t that the point?
The show continues through June 24. For details, see the sidebar.