Theater Review: Chicago’s Goodman Theatre features fantastic tech effects

Editor’s note: The following review was written prior to the end of the show’s run April 18.

By Bill Beard

I have repeatedly urged stateline theater-goers to drive in to Chicago as often as possible to see the variety of productions available, from the “Broadway in Chicago” series, to the fine, long-respected, in-town groups, to the popular suburban professional venues.

And now, I do so once again! For one of the most elaborate, complex, grandiose technical productions ever, I encourage you to hurry to the Goodman Theatre’s current production, A True History of the Johnstown Flood, directed by Goodman’s Artistic Director, Robert Falls.

Go! Not just for the fantastic scenery and special effects, but also for a bizarre piece of theater by any measure.

The printed synopsis of the play is offered thus:

“The devastating Johnstown Flood of 1889 serves as the backdrop for this provocative world premiere by Rebecca Gilman. The Baxter Theatre troupe, … composed of siblings James, Richard and Fanny … has been summoned to perform at an exclusive resort next to a beautiful man-made lake in the Pennsylvania mountains. Although the troupe’s repertoire consists of the romantic trifles typical of the era, James envisions a different kind of play, exposing the true struggles of common people. When a violent rainstorm compromises the lake’s shoddily-constructed dam, the resulting disaster lays bare the tragic inequities of the rigid class system … and paves the way for a seismic change in both theater and society.”

Using the basic facts of the actual 1889 flood, playwright Rebecca Gilman has written a play about many things, perhaps too many. Basically, she seems to be trying to say something important about class conflict, pitting this struggling little band of family thespians against the wealthy, resort-owning land barons who have hired the three siblings to provide mindless melodramas, in a pretense of supporting the arts. The Baxters, brothers Richard and James and sister Fanny, cling to the trite scripts of their father’s writing, and perform proudly with the battered, but still impressive, scenery and props of the group’s former heyday.

Unfortunately, Gilman spends far too much time and effort on these silly “plays within the play,” which serve little purpose other than to exhibit the dreary and tedious scripts and the troupe’s terrible over-acting; and presumably to remind one of the ill treatment of the lower classes and former slaves, which will then emphasize the existing inequities among the thespians, the wealthy resortists and the local working-class townspeople.

We find out early on that the dam, which was built to provide a lovely little lake for the resort, was constructed with flaws that surely would result in its bursting under stress. And, after several days of heavy rains, so it does, sending millions of gallons of water down the valley to destroy more than 2,000 people. A natural disaster, aided and abetted by some shoddy workmanship, with the lower classes as the victims, of course. Sound a bit like Katrina?

And that’s only Act I. The plot darkens and wanders throughout Act II; and continues to explore the effects and changes wrought by the disaster, especially in the lives of the three Baxter siblings, becoming almost Ibsen-esque in its attempts at realism.

In the end, Gilman has simply included too much. It actually has little to do with the titled disaster, and “a little to do” with several other things: theater and the arts, social inequities, political influences and various levels of class conflict. And Artistic Director Robert Falls has included it all, and pushed it all to its extreme, including the monumental visual production. We end up with just a little “too much of everything!” But my God, it’s impressive! Whether that impression is positive or negative is entirely up to the individual viewer.

Certainly the highest kudos should go to Sound Designer Richard Woodbury. His absolutely astounding representation (in black out) of the deluge of water, with the deafening, crashing roar of uprooted buildings, railway cars, trees and bodies, was completely believable, frightening and shatteringly real, the most impressive piece of sound design I’ve ever experienced.

When combined with the magnificent set design by Walt Spangler, costumes by Ana Kuzmanic and lighting by James F. Ingalls, this production must be one of the grandest in Goodman’s history.

For about upcoming Goodman Theatre productions and reservations, call (312) 443-3800 or visit

From the April 21-27, 2010 issue

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