Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: St. Louis

Purple Heart City
Tesseract Theatre
Review by Richard T. Green

Also see Richard's review of As It Is in Heaven

Ashley Netzhammer and Kelvin Urday
Photo by Brittanie Gunn
At the outset, there are about ten medium-sized potted plants jammed together on stage for this new play by Tyler Gruenloh: plants for a suburban gardening contest coming up. But as the story develops, you could be forgiven for any slight urge to restage it all as some space colony set down on a hostile planet.

In this case, the hostile planet (as in so many science-fiction stories) is really Earth, and the space colony is doomed, of course. But it's all very current and rooted in ranch-house reality, under the direction of Brittanie Gunn, based on a real life environmental tragedy here in the St. Louis area. Purple Heart City tells the story of residents around Cold Water Creek in Florissant, Missouri, in north St. Louis County, a little over three miles farther north of Ferguson. The venue for this play is the swanky/funky .ZACK performance space, near St. Louis University.

After World War II, radioactive waste was secretly dumped into Cold Water Creek by Mallinckrodt Inc., which processed and stored 50,000 tons of uranium around St Louis from 1942 to 1957 for the Manhattan Project and for postwar usage. And the secret dumping was how they disposed of it, with government approval. But, for the past several decades, an underground fire from a nearby landfill has coincidentally threatened to make things worse—potentially releasing thorium and other radioactive substances into the air, when the two different forms of radiant energy finally meet. It all sounds too crazy to be true doesn't it? The play's die-hard local activist Ashley (played by the indefatigable Ashley Netzhammer) likens the fallout to having a dirty bomb go off in your own backyard.

Distrust and powerlessness smolder too, when Daniel (a humbled and bemused Kelvin Urday) comes home to face his responsibilities as a father and son. But, unlike the "prodigal son" of the New Testament, there's very little eye contact, and the dialog is perfunctory at best, as the women in the play (including the fine Rachel Bailey as his ex-wife) mark his return from an 18-month long poet's adventure to New Orleans.

And yet, because of (or in spite of) his return, the monologs that blossom throughout in play become elegant and subtly imploring in the face of the ongoing environmental crisis: passion is mixed with just the right number of hard facts, and references to soft tissue cancers that rage through the neighborhood, like that underground fire. Mr. Gruenloh's characters are all divided from one another, but each gradually finds his or her own inner strength.

Ashley and Daniel's mother (Helen Pancella as Margaret) each work two jobs to make ends meet, and both have an unusual depth of experience in dealing with dying relatives. In fact, there's still an open space in Margaret's living room for her late husband's hospital bed, which she is determined not to bring back for herself, despite a persistent cough. There is a Midwestern starkness about it all, though the occasional joke does creep in. And Ms. Pancella shows quiet power, and a kindly grit, as things go downhill.

Darrious Varner is sublimely down to earth as Curtis, the lawyer trying to assemble a class-action suit on behalf of the residents, and facing the mammoth odds against them. There's an insightful little moment before one of the ongoing public hearings, when Curtis and Ashley must quickly hash out a strategy to avoid riling the spokesman for the hugely powerful waste management firm, which bought the company that previously had legal responsibility for the radioactive site. (Mallinckrodt itself has changed hands and re-formed so many times as to become unrecognizable, as a legal entity.) The ideology of Purple Heart City is similarly elusive, as polemics are kept at arm's distance. But political matters gently and persistently become indelibly personal.

Each performance is endearingly fatalistic, which is perhaps the dominant theme of most new works set in Missouri these days, including popular movies like Gone Girl or Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. No matter how many times you may say “Show Me,” nobody can really see, or understand, what's going on beneath the surface. But Purple Heart City is a compelling reminder to stay on your guard.

Through March 25, 2018, at the .ZACK Theatre, 3224 Locust Street (just west of Compton Ave.), St. Louis MO. There's a nice parking lot, though the upstairs of the building is often rented out for event space. For more information visit

Rachel Bailey: Sarah
Ashley Netzhammer: Ashley
Helen Pancella: Margaret
Kelvin Urday: Daniel
Darrious Varner: Curtis
Amanda Brasher: Understudy for Ashley)

Brittanie Gunn: Director
Casey Richards: Stage Manager
Kevin Bowman: Lighting Designer/Tech Jedi
Katie Palazzola: Set Design
Karen Pierce: Light Board Operator