Review "A True History of the Johnstown Flood": Tread Water for the View!

Goodman Theatre presents

A True History of the Johnstown Flood


At 170 North Dearborn

Written by Rebecca Gilman

Directed by Robert Falls

Thru April 18th

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Running Time:  Two hours and forty minutes includes a twenty minute intermission


Actors playing actors.  Plays within a play.  A disaster on stage.  Goodman Theatre presents the world premiere of A True History of the Johnstown Flood.  Based on a real disaster in American history, Playwright Rebecca Gilman places the fictional Baxter family at the floodgates.  The Baxters are a traveling theatrical troop.  Utilizing their father’s legacy of hand painted sets and not-so-timeless scripts, the struggling Baxters finish their gig at the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club and head down the mountain to Johnstown. Tragedy follows them.  On May 31, 1889, the dam collapses releasing 20 million tons of water from the exclusive club’s manmade lake.  The tragedy kills 2,209 people.  Not enough relief supplies and too much American curiosity surround the survivors as they battle the aftermath.  Is the flood a ‘natural disaster’ or a ‘manmade catastrophe’?   A True History of the Johnstown Flood struggles to answer that question on many levels.



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Nineteenth century family acting troop endures an avoidable tragic disaster.  Rebecca Gilman creates an interesting premise to illustrate struggles between the rich and the poor.  The story swells with possibility but the script can’t quite hold up to the pressure.   The first act introduces the Baxters and Lippincotts in a cliché class matchup.  Rich son falls for poor actress.    Family members disapprove.  Where’s the flood?  Not really a disaster junkie, I spend the 90 minute first act wondering when the flood is arriving.  There is not one but, two contrived Baxter productions as plays within the play.  The time period acting and dialogue is deliberately stiff and the audience reacts with a hearty chuckle.  At other times in the show, the unintentional stiltedness in the main play is not funny, it’s awkward.   Where’s the flood?  It finally arrives right before intermission in a rain of fury but the very next exchange is conversationally odd and disaster protocol unlikely.


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‘People only come to see the scenery,’ quips a Baxter brother during the show.  In A True History of the Johnstown Flood, scenery gawkers won’t be disappointed.  Walt Spangler blew the budget on multiple designs.  Tranquil imagery of South Fork’s lake, plush interior of a Pullman train car, layered backdrops of Baxter productions and the devastating debris of the flood aftermath, Spangler’s sets tell a spectacular story!  Combining Spangler’s rain with James F. Ingalls’ lighting and Richard Woodbury’s sound design, the brief flood scene is a torrent of intriguing chaos.   Papa Baxter believed in ‘moments of whimsy’ on stage and Ana Kuzmanic provides just that with fanciful costumes and later the true opposite of whimsy with the filthy, ragged survivalists’ clothing.


The final play within a play of A True History of the Johnstown Flood is “Catharsis.”  Having not had an intense emotional experience with the show, I walk away from this disaster wondering if this outcome was avoidable. 


A wonderful companion for the good times and bad, Rick describes the show with “desire,failure,hope.”



No better place to stock up on provisions for a show at the Goodman than Peterino’s, 150 N. Dearborn.  My favorite bartender, Eddie, is M.I.A. on Monday nights.  Disaster!  Eddie knows what wine I like. Being a survivalist by nature, I react calmly and order, ‘whatever Rick is drinking.’  After dinner, I wrap up the other 1/2 of my cheeseburger. It’s always good to have food to barter with in disasters’ aftermaths.  That premonition is actualized when a homeless person asks me for help as I leave the Goodman Theatre.  I handover the cheeseburger.  I’m no Clare Barton but I do what I can!          

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