Mold

John Biguenet’s new play Mold is premiering at Southern Rep this month, and I was invited to the “bloggers’ night” preview on Thursday. The play opens as a young couple, Trey and Marie, returns to New Orleans one year after Katrina. They escaped to Houston, but Trey’s parents stayed behind and died when the levees failed. The couple has inherited Trey’s parents’ house, and have an appointment to meet with Edgar, an insurance adjuster. Before the insurance agent arrives, they have an encounter with Amelia, a neighborhood volunteer who’s tagging houses the city had marked for destruction, and Trey and Marie’s house is one of them.

The play is a bit slow to start as Trey and Marie lay out the exposition of the story, but as soon as Amelia (played by Carol Sutton) arrives, the energy on stage goes up about 100%. Her character is a combination of no-nonsense civic enforcer, NOLA old-timer, and Katrina survivor, leavened with a bit of comic scene-stealer as well. She’s a joy to watch, and yet she tells one of Mold‘s most harrowing tales.

Biguenet noted in the post-play talkback, that he invented almost nothing in Mold or in the two previous plays of his Katrina Trilogy, Rising Water and Shotgun. The events portrayed actually happened to real people, which makes them all the more heartbreaking as you hear them told.

The set design for Mold is a trashed house with convincingly warped floors, bisected and open to view. I found it slightly distracting during the opening scene, because Trey and Marie do not enter the house for a good fifteen minutes, and so the audience sees it long before they do. On the other hand, given the awareness that no mere stage set could convey the realities of the devastation people like Trey and Marie faced, I don’t think this is a serious problem.

The conflict that develops is between Marie, who wants to return to Houston, and Trey, who fantasizes about restoring the house and moving back to New Orleans. Kerry Cahill plays Marie as likeable and level-headed, as opposed to her husband’s more tempermental nature. In fact, she seems almost too level-headed at the end of the first act, when he announces that they won’t go back to Houston.

Real-life Trey Burvant’s character Trey is hot-headed, stubborn, and impractical. I wish Biguenet had given us a little more of Trey’s personality in the first act, because when the insurance adjuster (Randy Maggiore) arrives in act two, we also see that Trey doesn’t have a good grasp of how insurance works, and his arguments with Edgar feel a little repetitive.

I appreciated very much that Biguenet didn’t make the insurance agent a villain. Edgar, like Amelia, has strong roots in the city, and when attacked by Trey, points out he was in town during and after Katrina, pulling people out of the water when Trey was safe in Houston. Despite working for an industry that many people feel betrayed them, Edgar has a lot of personal integrity.

Some of the character arcs feel slightly erratic, such as Marie’s early calmness, and Trey’s  decision to rebuild the home in New Orleans based (apparently) on looking through an old photo album. What happens feels true to each character, but we don’t always glimpse the attributes of the person in a way that makes those decisions seem natural in the moment.

Biguenet doesn’t provide a conventional resolution to the conflict in Mold, which reflects the changes he observed in New Orleans since Katrina. There are, he pointed out in the talkback, over 100,000 people “living in exile” somewhere in America that will never return to the city.

I’m glad I saw Mold; it was well-acted, and gives us a lot to think about: roots and responsibility, respect for the past and how to build a future – questions that apply both to families and to cities. As someone who was half a continent away when Katrina hit, I felt a more visceral connection to what the people here endured.

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