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At Just Off Broadway, Storm Stories drowns in good intentions

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So, look. A couple of pros and a host of amateurs are putting on a passionate, angry, didactic, sometimes unwatchable play about Hurricane Katrina that I had to climb over rubble to get to. That's verisimilitude, people. Thanks to construction around the Just Off Broadway Theatre in Penn Valley Park — and to the confusion and roadblocks of Rockfest, which was going on the night I went — I wound up with a long slope of mud puddles and masonry piles between me and the door. I picked my way down, but I can't quite recommend that you attempt the same. To decide that, consider: What do you value more — high-quality theater or principled outrage?

Outrage can lead to art, of course. Katrina has already inspired two great works: Spike Lee's anguished, life-packed documentary When the Levees Broke, and Lee-collaborator Terence Blanchard's haunting requiem in jazz, A Tale of God's Will. Good intentions inform both, but neither depends on those good intentions to break through to audiences. The same can't be said of Storm Stories, Judi Ann Mason and B.J. Mason's fuguelike, true-life drama of those hit hardest by Katrina. Storm Stories has good intentions like FEMA has trucks. But just because they're there doesn't mean they're going to get you anywhere.

The show chains together loosely related scenes set during the flood. We're dealing with true human tragedy, so there are moments of power. Professionals Lynn King and Glendora Davis ace their scenes, and a vignette about a newlywed couple (Jerron O'Neal and Lisiana Michelle) keeping their heads above water in an attic moves us to laugh and to fear. O'Neal also scores in a harrowing sequence about rowing through the corpse-strewn waters — of all the actors who row here, he's the only one who seems to be aware that water has weight.

The Masons thread a couple of stories throughout the show, with mixed effectiveness. The better one concerns a 12-year-old boy searching for his mother and craving some McDonald's. Rasson Wofford, the young man who plays him, has compelling spark in the show's clearest narrative arc. When his journey reaches its conclusion, Mason fashions him a funny, character-specific punch line. We savor the release of laughter but wonder why effective moments like this are so rare.

Less certain is the story of co-author B.J. Mason himself, a character played here — with a clarity and force the writing lacks — by Dennis Jackson. At first, he's a narrator shaken to his core by what he has seen. In the second act, though, he vanishes for long stretches, turning the show over to a reporter figure (Linda Levin) who, in a slow, halting voice, describes for us the tragedy that the play can't get it together to demonstrate dramatically. When Mason shows up again for what should be a tragic yet rousing finish, he has changed in ways the script never makes clear.

The good moments have more to do with our memories of the event itself than what's happening onstage. Many of the characters — blind, old jazz man; earnest rescue worker; clueless Southern belle — are the baldest of types, and under co-directors Jacqueline Gafford and Penelope Weine, most of the large, amateur cast don't make them into people. Those same amateurs are often moved to what seem to be real tears; unfortunately, that level of pain isn't transmitted to the crowd. Through both slow hours, the eyes around me were dry (and, in one case, closed).

The set is an effective pile of coolers, beer cans and traffic cones. News images projected behind the actors are arresting in ways the drama isn't. Often, they reveal a second gulf: one between what we've seen in real life and what is being achieved on this stage. A percussionist taps out accompaniment to most of Jackson's scenes, which rouses the show from its stiffness.

The white amateurs fare much worse than the black ones, perhaps because they're often handed the prickly task of playing racists. The white actors either want us to know how utterly incomprehensible they find racist talk, so they awkwardly camp it up, or they're just tin-eared. Either way, the world-class racists I grew up among never slow-burn up to the word nigger the way that white racists in plays do. In plays, it always bursts from the mouth of a yokel in full, crazed fury. Instead, white racists of the sort supposedly depicted here use it as they would any other flat, categorical noun. Think tractor or vehicle.

White racists might be good people to bring to this show. Others who should come: the forgetful, political candidates, fans of talk radio, people who say "community" a lot, friends and family of the cast, anyone who values intentions over results, people who missed When the Levees Broke. I'm tempted to lug along a friend who is hewing to the old Nader line that the Democrats and the Republicans are one and the same. Clambering over the rubble afterward, I would tell this friend: "This is what happens when you elect those who believe that government is incapable of helping people. Pull the lever for Obama — who will almost certainly staff government agencies with qualified experts — and we might not have to sit through one of these again."

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