The opening of "The Way of Water" conjures an idyllic scene: two men sitting on a dock with fishing poles, casting out far into the water and waiting for the satisfying splash of their sinking lures. A few minutes in, however, it becomes apparent that something's not quite right. The fish aren't biting and haven't been for awhile. The stench from the water burns the men's eyes. Their conversation is about friends and neighbors who are sick or dying.
The deceptively serene setting of Playwright Caridad Svich's work, being staged by Frank Theatre, is a small Louisiana town on the Gulf Coast several months after the Deepwater Horizon explosion. British Petroleum (or "Big Pig" as the play's characters term it) has assured the world that the cleanup is progressing and is downplaying the danger from chemical dispersants it has used.
But for fisherman Jimmy Robichaux, played by H. Adam Harris, and other residents along the gulf, the effects of the spill and cleanup have been calamitous. Not only have the fish vanished, threatening his livelihood, but he himself has been sickened by the environmental disaster. A few minutes into the first scene he suffers a seizure. By the end of the first act it's clear that he's dying.
"The Way of Water" isn't for the faint-hearted. Svich chronicles in painful detail the devastating impact the combination of poverty and poison have had on gulf residents, personified in the four characters in this play. This is a work fueled by outrage, and Harris captures that undercurrent brilliantly, through mood swings that transform jocularity into violence with frightening speed. He is surrounded by a strong supporting cast with Hope Cervantes as his wife, Eric Sharp as his fishing partner Yuki, and Emily Zimmer as Yuki's wife.
While Frank Theatre gives "The Way of Water" a solid production under Wendy Knox's direction, Svich's dialogue is annoyingly elliptical, leading to odd, jerky exchanges between the characters. In the throes of his illness, Jimmy repeatedly launches into flights of poetic prophesying so awkwardly transitioned that they seem affected rather than affecting.
Beyond these issues, Svich's play simply goes on too long with too little. Because these four characters have no resources, no hope and no way out, these two-plus hours simply become a close-up examination of the details of their pain.
Despite these issues, "The Way of Water" deserves credit for illuminating the losses of this environmental disaster and Frank Theatre deserves credit for once again not shying away from the tough stuff.
Lisa Brock writes regularly about theater.