Dan Dietz’s drama of a family trying to recover and rebuild nine months after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans is proof of the adage that adversity doesn’t build character, but instead reveals it. Forum Theatre’s artistic team gives an absorbing and revealing production to this area premiere.
Clementine in the Lower 9 is loosely based on the Greek tragedy Agamemnon by Aeschylus. In traditional Greek form, a chorus (ably filled by blues musician Scott Patterson) sets the story and occasionally comments on the action. While Aeschylus’ trilogy dealt with the need for a more enlightened form of justice to replace the cycle of retribution and revenge, Clementine in the Lower 9 poses questions of forgiveness and whether you can ever “fix what’s past fixin’.”
The blues is appropriate for this story, not only because of the New Orleans setting, but also because of the hard times the family is facing. At its center is Clementine (Caroline Stefanie Clay) who is determined to rebuild her flood-damaged home and family. As the story opens, her son Reginald (Thony Mena) is back from college to help, and waits with her for the return of her husband Jaffy (Jeff Allin) who has been in Houston earning money.
Dietz skillfully works in the exposition about how Jaffy is a charming rogue of a jazz musician whose life formerly involved drug-using, thieving, and a little fooling around. Jaffy has been clean for eight years, however, and is forgiven for past transgressions by Clementine, if not by Reginald.
Jaffy makes a grand entrance to the damaged residence with a new suit, a wad of money, his trumpet, and a teen-aged addict named Cassie (Megan Graves). Clementine is shocked to learn that they have been sharing a hotel room in Houston for the last three months, but Jaffy persuades her that it has been more of a father-daughter relationship; he has worked to help Cassie break her drug addiction.
Clementine is even more skeptical, however, about Jaffy’s claim that Cassie can see the future. Unlike Cassandra in the Greek myth who is cursed by Apollo so that no one believes her predictions, Jaffy tells them that Cassie helped him win $10,000 in a lottery and is his key to future success.
Cassie’s presence serves as the catalyst for the family to confront various demons, including the son’s childhood resentment of his father and the painful loss of their daughter in the rising flood waters.
Director Derek Goldman skillfully shapes the mood of the play. It’s a dark story, with dark lighting, dark humor, and the sadness of Scott Patterson’s excellent performance of the blues during scene breaks. The use of music is a highlight of the story, as the characters demonstrate the healing and perhaps even redemptive power of music.
Clementine in the
Closes June 15, 2013
Forum Theatre at
Round House Theatre – Silver Spring
8641 Colesville Road
Silver Spring, MD
1 hour, 45 minutes with no intermission
Wednesdays thru Sundays
Dietz’s real triumph comes from the skillful blending of setting, characters, and music. The wonderful disarray and deterioration of Lisi Stoessel’s set is a convincing portrayal of a damaged home in the Lower Ninth Ward where the breaking of the levees caused the most damage. It is an inspired setting for studying a damaged family trying to pull it together.
As for the music, Justin Ellington’s blues fits the story perfectly. Scott Patterson gives feeling both to the music and the story with his charismatic performance.
Caroline Stefanie Clay turns in a powerful performance as Clementine, the former jazz singer and nurse who is determined to be the family’s rock. Jeff Allin has the most difficult role, but he succeeds at giving Jaffy a light-hearted charm that makes the character work. Thony Mena is convincing as the troubled son and Megan Graves vanishes into the sunken-eyed, tormented, and barely articulate drug addict.
It is not necessary to know the Agamemnon story to enjoy Clementine in the Lower 9. All that is needed is an appreciation for the troubles that any family can experience.
Clementine in the Lower 9 by Dan Dietz . Directed by Derek Goldman . Featuring Caroline Stefanie Clay, Jeff Allin, Megan Graves, Thony Mena, and Scott Patterson. Music by Justin Ellington . Produced by Forum Theatre . Reviewed by Steven McKnight.