Veanne Cox in A Disaster Begins
(© Jason Gardner)
Veanne Cox in A Disaster Begins
(© Jason Gardner)
Ain Gordon's fascinating A Disaster Begins, now playing at HERE Arts Center, is a marvel of ideas and stories, made even more marvelous by its star, Veanne Cox.

The proceedings begin deceptively simply. Scratchy recordings of a pianist playing ragtime waft through the theater and there's a quaintly lettered black and white projection on a blackboard announcing the lecture that's to come. Soon, Muriel Halstead (Cox) enters -- looking like a tightly wound spinster school teacher in gray tweed jacket and ankle-length skirt -- and theatergoers may think that Gordon has concocted a charming old-time entertainment of sorts.

But, those expectations are dashed when Muriel distractedly announces that "tonight's lecture -- why you paid your money, came, sat, waited, it's just very...canceled." It's not, of course, and what follows is not only a presentation about the hurricane that devastated Galveston, Texas in 1900 and Muriel's book about the storm, but also her life and the events that led to write this seminal "disaster book," The Galveston Flood.

Muriel's scattered musings are held together tenuously, but never anything less than engrossingly, by what she describes as the "tentacles of topicality" (a bit of a tongue-twister that becomes something of a running joke as the piece progresses). Cox delivers Muriel's dizzying barrage of history, personal anecdotes, and philosophical reflections with a remarkable mixture of deeply felt emotion and outright humor. (At various points in the production, her performance brings to mind comediennes ranging from Lily Tomlin to Carol Burnett.) Additionally, she brings to life a number of secondary characters from Muriel's life with affecting detail. Particularly impressive is her portrayal of Muriel's mother, a domineering woman with social pretensions who disapproves of and dismisses her daughter's first forays into creative writing.

Gordon's script -- which impressively can sound both period and contemporary, colloquial and lyrical -- builds with engrossing intensity to the moment that the U.S. government first learns of the approach of the hurricane that will leave 6,000 Galveston residents dead. Sadly, with these details, the play becomes unduly heavy-handed and somewhat condescending as Gordon overtly and unnecessarily underscores parallels between the events of the past and recent history. Thankfully, though, this misstep never completely diminishes this ambitious piece's impact.