Randall Newsome in A True History
of the Johnstown Flood
(© Eric Y. Exit)
Randall Newsome in A True History
of the Johnstown Flood

(© Eric Y. Exit)
The Goodman Theatre's production of Rebecca Gilman's A True History of the Johnstown Flood officially opened on March 22. Robert Falls has directed the production, which continues through April 18.

The play unfolds against a backdrop of events leading up to the Johnstown Flood in 1889 and focuses on a small theater troupe that has come to the Pennsylvania mountains to perform a repertoire of mostly romantic trifles. The company features Cliff Chamberlain, Janet Ulrich Brooks, Sarah Charipar, Stephen Louis Grush, Cedric Mays, Randall Newsome, Heather Wood, and Lucas Hall.

The creative team includes Walt Spangler (scenic design), James F. Ingalls (lighting design), Ana Kuzmanic (costume design), and Richard Woodbury (sound design).

The critics' responses to the show have been published today and are finding Gilman's script too ambitious, reserving praise primarily for the physical production.

Among the reviews are:

Chicago Tribune
Johnstown Flood at the Goodman: Clarity is washed away in Gilman's ambitious premiere
"...her new play is currently derailed by the weight of its own symbolism and reluctance to get to the core of the story. There is so much that this single play wants and needs to support, its own internal dam eventually bursts, washing away the clarity of its narrative track. And when your play promises the "true history" of a flood, the audience is inevitably waiting for the water, even if the playwright wants to ponder social realism. We read the title; everything else feels like foreplay."

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"Longtime Falls watchers will see echoes here of both his epic "King Lear" and "Desire Under the Elms" (also designed by the spectacularly gritty Walt Spangler), previous embodiments of this singularly expansive and compelling director's fascination with lost and imperfect souls wandering through a post-apocalyptic world."

Chicago Sun-Times
Flood a theatrical disaster
"...while Gilman's ideas are certainly intriguing and timely enough to merit serious interest, her play is so stupefyingly bad on so many different levels that the fact that it has been given such an elaborate production defies understanding. And the gorgeous scenery only serves to emphasize the weakness of the material."

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"The Hurricane Katrina calamity comes to mind as a contemporary equivalent, of course, with the play also musing on the role artists can play in disasters, about the pervasive class inequities in this country and about the nature of early relief efforts. (There is even a notably wooden cameo for Clara Barton, the nurse whose newly founded American Red Cross played a crucial role in Johnstown after the flood.) But worthy premises do not necessarily make for living, breathing plays."

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"Gilman's realistic scenes are stiff and mouthpiecelike, and are only exacerbated by the inclusion of three terribly overextended pastiches of 19th-century melodrama that are excruciating to endure. And the whole story ends with barely a whimper. "

Time-Out Chicago
Gilman's latest is a bit of a washout
"It's probably not a good sign when the most dramatic action in your play is performed not by any of your actors but by your sound designer, as is the case in Gilman's fractured new work."

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"Johnstown seems to want to be many things: an indictment of class inequity, a statement on the introduction of European ideas in American theater, a did-you-know historical fiction. But in trying to pack in all of this, it doesn't achieve any of it very deeply or enthusiastically."

Variety
A True History of the Johnstown Flood
"In fact, while Gilman's heart seems very much with social realism -- James' speeches are more passionate, he sees the underlying causes and wants to ask why this event happened -- the truth is that "The True History of the Johnstown Flood" works far better in the realm of spectacle, thanks to the extraordinary sets from Walt Spangler, which capture 19th century drama, Pullman and freight train cars, and a flooded town, all mud and gray.

"As one of the characters says about the Baxters' silly romance, the best reason to see this show is, without question, the scenery."