VINEYARD HAVEN - John Biguenet is a New Orleans writer and translator who has published short stories, essays, and some passionate and moving blog reports for The
Unfortunately, all of those talents do not necessarily make him a playwright. But, perhaps because of the topical interest and his occasional flights of lyricism, with the help of a National New Play Network grant the Southern Rep Theatre commissioned Biguenet to write a play.
The result, "Rising Water," billed as the first in a cycle, is now onstage at the Vineyard Playhouse on Martha's Vineyard. No doubt the topicality and the lyricism piqued the Playhouse's interest, too (along with the news that the play was "nominated for the 2008 Pulitzer Prize," meaning only that someone submitted it for consideration, not that it was one of the nominated finalists for the award). Again, though, all that does not make "Rising Water" a play.
The script, which shows us a long-married husband and wife retreating to their attic and, ultimately, their rooftop as the broken levees flood New Orleans in the middle of the night, does showcase some of Biguenet's gifts: his fondness for storytelling, his sometimes vivid imagery, and his controlled fury. Too often, however, it plays like a series of writerly stories stitched together into alternating monologues; it comes as no surprise to learn that a couple of the biggest set pieces - a ghost story about a sea captain's dead wife and daughter who return as watery apparitions, and a long narrative of a father and son ma rooned in a mosquito-infested marsh when their powerboat breaks down - appeared previously as short stories.
Both these tales, and other sections of the play as well, have the feel of written fiction, not enacted drama. For too much of the play's two hours, we listen to the characters tell each other about dramas past, rather than live through any present drama of their own. And their stories simply don't have enough resonance or apposite meaning to give us a sense of who these people are, how they are responding right now to the crisis before them, where they have been, or where they will go.
We learn, for example, that Sugar and Camille have had their share of heartbreak and discord through the 30 years of their marriage: problems with children, some kind of painful rupture between them, and so forth. Despite plenty of heavy-handed foreshadowing, meandering exposition, and overwrought description, however, we never quite find out just what happened to those kids, what it is that Sugar did to Camille that she either can or can't forgive, or even what sort of lives they led - what jobs? what pastimes? what friendships? - before the rising water drove them upstairs.
I wish "Rising Water" were a better play. I wish MJ Bruder Munafo's smooth direction were enough to bring it to life, and that Barry Press and Bonnie Black didn't have to work quite so hard to so little effect. (I also wish their Nawlins accents were more consistently applied and that Maynard Silva's twanging music didn't sound quite so much like those menacing mosquitoes, but that's another story.) The Vineyard Playhouse is adventurous to take on new work, and certainly it seems as if someone could write a compelling play about Katrina. "Rising Water," though, isn't it.