After the Fire is Over

A family awaits news of a loved one’s fate at a chemical plant explosion. The Chamber Theatre offers an intense production.

By - Feb 25th, 2014 11:16 am
(l-r): April Paul & Raeleen McMillion. Photo by Mark Frohna.

(l-r): April Paul & Raeleen McMillion. Photo by Mark Frohna.

Imagine learning about 9/11 not through live TV images conveying the shock and grief but in secondhand dribbles of information on an AM radio station that shuts down at sunset.  Think of being unable to get NBC Huntley-Brinkley news updates on the fate of your working relatives because the TV is busted. Imagine relying on a party line phone where neighbors won’t get off as you await details of that enormous East Tennessee chemical plant explosion.

That was the sort of situation playwright Lori Mathews heard about growing up – a night of horrible unknowns for thousands of households in 1960 when the  Tennessee Eastman Company erupted in flames at the changing of shifts, leaving 16 dead and more than 300 injured.  In “October, Before I Was Born,” she envisions that night as one family’s complicated emotional experience. The vivid result runs through March 9 at the studio stage of the Broadway Theatre Center under the auspices of the Milwaukee Chamber Theatre.

So intense a situation fictionalized through one isolated family could easily drift into historical commentary – shock over such indifference to what families went through a few short decades ago as today we comfortingly rely on instant technology.  Can Mathews resist this and edge those social observations into an honest story?

She largely stays on track because the characters are thoughtfully developed with unforced moments of family humor, plus sly reminders that ordinary real people, not propaganda props, lived through this.  It’s all worked out in great detail over 90 minutes by three actors and director C. Michael Wright – a literal  “kitchen sink” drama.

Over meatloaf and soda, the anxiety of family members waffles between stoic acceptance and emotional frenzy in this rural home (cutaway kitchen, living room and porch cleverly created in studio theater space by scenic designer Charles J. Trieloff II). We don’t know who has survived but we do learn how each of the waiting relatives handles or fails to handle the tension.

April Paul plays Anne, the in-law whose husband was working at the center of the explosion.  It’s difficult to play a seven-month pregnant wife who is naturally high-strung and materialistic. It’s harder still to keep us sympathetic amid her shrill pettiness and self-centered concerns as she doubles over in premature labor. Paul deftly combines hysteria, believability, disgust and acquiescence with hardly a moment where she slips the physical or psychological demands of this relentlessly high-pitched character.

As Houston, the alternately clumsy and cunning housebound brother with a suspect past, Ken T. Williams never becomes a caricature of a Tennessee rube while playing one. He embodies a coward with smarmy edges full of schemes and self-pity, exposing the shallow motives while forcing us to laugh in self-recognition.

(l-r): April Paul & Ken T. Williams. Photo by Mark Frohna.

(l-r): April Paul & Ken T. Williams. Photo by Mark Frohna.

The glue is Raeleen McMillion as mother Martha patiently cooking, counseling and hiding her own worries about the fate of her husband and all the absent grown children working at the plant.   I’ve for years enjoyed McMillion’s commanding stage authority portraying domestic anchors and conveying homespun pragmatism. But here she believably adds a growing sense of hidden tension, self-doubt and even anger at the growing failure of the younger generation to match her stubborn traditional roots.

When Martha leaves the stage on an errand, we know the knives will come out between Anne and Houston. Mathews has a good ear for the slash of everyday speech. But her push for personality clashes sometimes creates uneasy transitions. In moments of high anxiety, families do hammer away at each other and spill dark secrets. But here they open deep wounds and then casually stop cutting the flesh to wander in another plot direction. At times the actors and director have to work too hard to find a path out of this dilemma.

That said, this is an engaging piece – keeping the audience on edge waiting to see who lived or died at the plant but also on edge examining the caliber of those caught in the waiting game.

This Midwest premiere, involving acting talents he would have been proud to trod the boards with, is dedicated to the late Dan Mooney who acted with the Chamber Theatre, the Milwaukee Rep and virtually every professional company in town while serving as their Milwaukee voice in Actors’ Equity.

Dominique Paul Noth served for decades as film and drama critic, later senior editor for features at the Milwaukee Journal. You can find his blogs here.

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