Even in the best of times, the characters in Caridad Svich‘s intense The Way Of Water (Frank Theatre performing at the Playwrights Center, through September 30) lead a close-to-the-bone life: living in shacks, enduring the choking humidity of southern Louisiana, working part time jobs, fishing for a hardscrabble living. They love their impoverished freedom, the greasy Gulf, they even love the heat. It’s “the way of water,” and these people are locked into it for better or for worse.
But these are not the best of times. Out in the Gulf, a mile down, an explosion has caused crude oil to spew. British Petroleum has attacked the offending well with solvents, toxic dispersants. Nasty chemicals are everywhere and everyone suffers. The fish have disappeared. Louie Mendoza takes an innocent swim in the Gulf and dies. The always precarious economy has tanked and Rosalie Robichaux’s job “has gone from part-time to some time” – it’s disappeared. The heartless bank is poised to foreclose on her ramshackle house.
Jimmy Robichaux, Rosalie’s spouse and the play’s hero, a decent man filled with bubbly good humor, a loving husband, a faithful friend, suffers most dramatically. Insomnia turns into grand mal seizures, which in turn become a malevolent body-wide cancer. “My insides are corroded.” He endures bleak and black visions. His life span is measured in months, weeks, days. Yet he soldiers on. Unable even to help Rosalie carry their few belongings, he totters to the car, on his way to his cousin’s. There is courage in this, real nobility. It gives the ending of the play power. The Way Of Water makes us understand that, when we fill the tanks of our shiny cars, there are people who suffer – and die – to keep us moving merrily along.
But yikes, this is difficult material. The Way Of Water is a play about victimhood, about awful things happening to honorable, honest and virtuous people. Suspense derives from horror: how ghastly will things get? Will we have to watch another seizure, witness poor Jimmy’s death? (We do not.) I tried not to, but I couldn’t keep from recoiling, from pulling away. Director Wendy Knox‘s cast underplays the play and thus prevents over-the-top emotionality. They make The Way Of Water work. But still…
Plays of this nature often suffer from character flatness (after all, it’s an outside force the characters confront, not something that comes, more interestingly, from inside). The Way Of Water is no exception. Moreover, this flatness is too often exacerbated by clunky playwriting: lots of past-tenseness (we hear about Mendoza’s death, the nastiness of the bank, etc, multiple times), the overuse of minimalist dialogue for every character (“Never said,” “Not ‘sposed to be,” “Bought nothin'”).
Only Jimmy is satisfyingly developed and with him H. Adam Harris does masterful work. He’s appealing, hulking, young, loose-limbed, charming. He makes us feel how much he loves Rosalie, his chum Yuki. And yet he frightens, with his seizures and his bleak “dreams of water.” Hope Cervantes makes her slim role fly – I hope Knox and Svich appreciate her pure power. Cervantes is an actor of wit, sweetness and intensity; some day she’s going to find the right play and blow us away. Eric Sharp as the stolid-but-hapless Yuki and Emily Zimmer as Neva, his pregnant wife do excellent turns. The Way Of Water is a solidly acted piece.
Kudos to Frank for taking it on. The subject matter is important.
For more information about John Olive, please visit his website.