It takes quite a play to bring tears to my eyes but, then, The Play About My Dad is quite a piece of writing. Any play set around the true stories of those who experienced Hurricane Katrina, and those who died, would obviously pull on the heart strings, but this production achieves far more than this. It causes us to question how we face life and death, and the importance of the connections we make in the limited time we have on this earth, messy and complicated as they often are.
It’s August 2005 and we’re in a town, Pass Christian, on the Gulf Coast in Mississippi. Like all the towns along the coast, the inhabitants have been warned to find shelter but not all are taking heed. Like Essie (Miquel Brown) , an elderly woman stubbornly refusing to leave her home as she waits for her son to come and collect her, two emergency medical technicians – Neil and Kenny (Nathan Welsh and Ammar Duffus) – who don’t want to be seen to be abandoning their job and responsibilities, and a young family who think they can ride out the storm safely enough.
What connects all these townsfolk is the writer, Boo Killebrew (played here by Hannah Britland) or, rather, her father. For Boo’s dad, Larry (David Schaal), is a local doctor and his family have lived in Pass Christian for years. All these lives – their pasts and their presents – are deeply intertwined, and it’s this link, this sense of community, that gives this play its focus.
As the town prepares for the storm, many naïve to the ferocity that is coming their way, Boo – through her father – builds up the backgrounds of these townsfolk, sharing with us their dreams and losses, giving us the emotional investment we need so that the payoff hits us at the finale. It is done beautifully but with more craft than you might have expected.
For, overarching all these experiences is the relationship between Boo and her Dad, one that emerges to be far more complex than it initially appears. In fact, much complexity is revealed about each of the characters as the play develops and, what this leads us to wrap up with Katrina, is our need for reconciliation.
Some of those we follow will survive, some do not, but as well as neighbours and friends, they share a common need to find peace with something in their lives – major or minor. Each needs forgiveness – to themselves more than to others – and the urgency of finding that peace and reconciliation before the final surge drowns them becomes pressing and heart-wrenching.
Direction comes from Stella Powell-Jones and it’s beautifully done, the characters literally criss-crossing each other’s spaces as timelines blur. She also gets some great performances from the cast and there is a lovely, tender balance here between warm comedy and tragedy.
The set is sparse but smart. Wooden boards lean against the walls, an evident nod to boarding up the houses in prep for the storm. But there’s also a sense of continuity too, that life will continue, that we rebuild after disasters. That we carry on. And that’s a very powerful potent message of positivity to take from a tragedy such as Katrina.
Jermyn Street Theatre, London, to Saturday July 21, 2018.
Tickets from £30.
All production images by Harry Livingstone.