Nature can easily wipe homes, possessions, and even people from the face of the Earth, but hope is not easily eradicated. So despite the narrow, personal focus of the stories compiling Fleeing Katrina, which is playing at the Midtown International Theatre Festival through Sunday, this tribute to the New Orleans survivors of last year's Hurricane Katrina ultimately succeeds in proving that humanity really does conquer all.
It is not, however, an entirely easy journey. When Fleeing Katrina moves and entertains, as it intermittently does, it's because the epic and even tragic nature of the Hurricane and its aftermath of flooding make it impossible to not sympathize with the victims. But playwright Rob Florence and director Mary Lee Kellerman, who have assembled the monologue-driven evening from the stories of seven survivors, don't do enough to enhance the sweep and scope of the stories and ensure that whatever transpires will have a strong theatrical basis.
The performance even begins with a slide show of iconic images (set to weepy-yet-inspiring music) that one might expect to grace the likes of Today or Good Morning America before certain commercial breaks. It's a curiously static beginning to something that - even for those watching at home, hundreds or thousands of miles away - was an unusually active experience. Even the passionate opening scene, about a medical first-response team trying to take charge, can't recapture the momentum lost at the start.
That's not the fault of performer Deborah Johnstone: The quietly simmering anger she uses to informs the personality of ambulance operator who has grown weary of hearing others complain of "Katrina fatigue" is just right. But her character's story, bitter and emotionally downtrodden, sets the wrong tone for the subsequent stories about those who overcame the odds - and sometimes the worst in human nature - to rescue themselves, their families, and even perfect strangers from terrible fates.
Sure, there's one exception: The sixth story, "Rights of Passage," is about Abdulrahman Zeitoun, whose life-saving efforts weren't enough to prevent his arrest on suspicion of terrorism. (Ronnie Khalil gives the subtlest and most restrained performance of the evening, masterfully balancing rage and pride as Abdulrahman recounts his tale from his jail cell.)
But more in keeping with the show's philosophy are "From Congo Square to the Convention Center," starring David Wayne Britton as an animated historian who likens the chaos and the camaraderie of New Orleans to that of Africa during the slave trade; "Sammy and Sylvester," about an obstinate older woman (Johnstone again) whose preconceptions are shattered when two dangerous-looking youths risk everything to get her to safety; "Stolen Crayons," centering on a young mother (Lindy Rogers) who rises above the degeneration of civility around her; and a traveling eccentric (Cory Gibson) who didn't let tragedy consume him during his escape, and who is now desperate to return to New Orleans.
The portraits the actors paint, if never riveting, are all at least sensitively detailed. But only Rudy Rasmussen transcends the ordinary to achieve something more: He's telling his own story, of all but forcibly evacuating his parents from their home, of experiencing firsthand the unnecessary anarchy that erupted in public places and hospitals alike, of the contributions (helpful or otherwise) of public figures such as Geraldo Rivera, Al Gore, and even President Bush.
While Rasmussen's program bio cites acting credits, his work is the evening's most casual and least polished, suggesting - can it be? - that his words are being delivered extemporaneously. That kind of informality in a piece as delicate as this one - which already struggles under the weight of Kellerman's awkward staging - could prove highly volatile. But Rasmussen's corny jokes, silly digressions, and wide-eyed disbelief at the occurrences he describes make even the better of the other monologues seem overly mannered and actory.
It's possible they might better capture their subjects' inner spirits, but only Rasmussen achieves the true goal of Fleeing Katrina: finding reason in escalating randomness. However ragged his delivery, he's the shot of adrenaline capable of making the pedestrian profound. Without it, the show is merely a theatrical exercise that tries too hard to approximate the heart and soul of the city and people it claims to be celebrating.