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Theater Review: “Clementine in the Lower 9” at Forum Theatre

Dan Dietz’s spirited new play moves Greek tragedy to the Big Easy.

Caroline Stephanie Clay and Thony Mena in Forum Theatre’s Clementine in the Lower 9. Photograph by Melissa Blackall Photography.

True catharsis is the purification that comes at the end of a disastrous blaze—or in the case of Clementine in the Lower 9, it’s the moment of truth that comes in the months after the flood waters have receded through the cracks of the broken levees.

Playwright Dan Dietz’s new show, at Forum Theatre through June 15, is an imperfect though wildly compelling reimagining of Aeschylus’s Agamemnon. In Dietz’s version of the myth, the gods have been lured from the safety of their mountaintop to the Big Easy by the region’s music. The play opens in New Orleans nine months after Hurricane Katrina, and Clementine (Caroline Stephanie Clay), the Clytemnestra character, is waiting in her broken, soggy house for her husband, Jaffy, the play’s Agamemnon, who is making his way back home from Texas. Just as in the Greek tragedy, this husband is responsible for the death of their daughter.

The size of the cast, and even the scope of the story, is rather small. A family is torn apart, and as the waters draw back into the Gulf, the individuals begin the process of rebuilding their home, their family, and, by extension, their community. The entirety of the action takes place within and around the broken living room of the family’s home. There are faulty appliances that create the illusion of the home’s perimeter, and the wreckage of a doorway creates the threshold between the outside world and the family’s environment. Behind the wall where the family pictures hang is a dark sheet of stars.

Jaffy, played by Jeff Allin, is a trumpet-playing ex-junkie who returns to his family dragging along 15-year-old drug addict Cassie (Megan Graves), who, like her Greek counterpart, Cassandra, doesn’t speak much. When she does, it’s to scream for the god Apollo and to tell the future—and in this case, the past—in cryptic snippets. Reginald (Thony Mena) is Clementine and Jaffy’s lost, angry young son who’s home from Columbia University. He’s madly in love with and devoted to his mother, destroyed by his father, and heartbroken by the death of his little sister.

The soul of this production is the relationship between Clementine, Reginald, and Jaffy. The three actors, with Clay’s Clementine providing a strong lead, play expertly off each other. The family reacts and communicates the complex ties that bind, and break, with touching authenticity. This isn’t a perfect family; it’s a shattered one. The very last tie connecting them is love—everything else has been washed away by drugs, heartbreak, death, and the epic storm.

Scott Patterson, representing the Greek chorus, is a charming guide throughout the story. Patterson plays much of the score, composed by Justin Ellington, on a solo piano without accompaniment. His physicality is impressive, but when he moves he does so without effort and is a captivating presence onstage.

Director Derek Goldman has done a good job of staging the play’s climactic scene, but the back-and-forth between the actors lags when it should kick up a notch. The final unveiling is still shocking, but it’s hard not to feel it could be sharper, and that the notes of dialogue could hit a bit harder.

Of the five actors, Graves has the toughest job. Cassie spends much of the show screaming after the sun god and pantomiming heroin withdrawal. There are moments where she dips into overacting, but in the end her performance loses its jagged edge, and she delivers Cassie to the audience by holding her back.

Clementine in the Lower 9 is a play that is utterly, beautifully, imperfectly theatrical. It is, in the end, a love song to the restorative and cathartic power of art in those moments when there is absolutely nothing left.

Clementine in the Lower 9 is at Forum Theatre through June 15. Running time is around 90 minutes, with no intermission. Tickets ($25) are available via Forum’s website.