The Hatch Arts Collective is far from the first people to draw a direct line between the Earth and the complex lives of its most pollutant children, but they may very well be the first people to do so exactly like this. Driftless is part nonlinear family drama, part protest play, part exploration of myth, part scholarly essay and part send up of our once smoggy city. It is a play as empathetic as it is political agent, and though its myriad artistic voices are occasionally incongruous, Driftless is most significantly a success.
In the most straightforward sense possible, Driftless is about the lives of Sierra and Collin Howard (Siovhan Christensen and Alec Silberblatt respectively), a young family deeply affected by the aftereffects of fracking. Complicating matters, Collin and his father in law actually work in the fossil fuel industry and prefer to ignore what they consider to be a ridiculous protest of an essential industry. Meanwhile, the far more concerned Peter Schneider (Trevor Butler), a priest and family friend, plays a key role in the Howards’ lives while dealing with his own entirely negative past experiences with the much debated environmental process.
This is, of course, an oversimplification of a play that begins with a metaphoric sex scene between Marcellus and Jordan (AKA Sierra and Collin, AKA fracking equipment and oil), which is narrated to explain both the literal penetrative process of fracking – and the literal process of sex – while the metaphor’s primary agents perform a kind of interpretive dance. Ahem.
Driftless is a work so heavily built on metaphor that any discussion about it must in some sense interpolate its symbolism. Entire scenes can be several analogies deep, and the play’s small cast are all a variety of people. Luckily though, Paul Kruse’s complex script never loses site of the human story at the forefront, preserving both the play’s accessibility as well as its visceral emotional impact. We are primarily here to be with and understand the lives of these people and how fracking has changed them.
This is a good thing for both the play and potentially weary audience members. Although the theme of universal interconnectivity is appreciable and occasionally straight up brilliant, our attention is too often drawn towards a unbuilt Ikea table representative of a similarly unestablished home, placed in the center of the stage. This familiar symbol of rebuilding and togetherness is an unwelcome addition to an already massive list of imagery in need of being unpacked that does little to service the play’s other parallel threads.
In contrast, the use of onstage shelves and drawers are a gorgeous metaphor for the permanent nature of waste and experience. The food the family consumes is not placed in the black hole of a trash bag for it to disappear out of sight and mind, but instead deeper inside the home where it lingers. There is no ‘throw away’; there is only put elsewhere.
Several other visual and audial production elements deserve note here, because Driftless features some truly impressive visuals. Although the forefront of the set is by and large an approximation of your typical theatric living room – that is, one that’s attached to a steel stairwell – some really inspired light design does wonders to make the space feel alive (presumably thanks to Lighting Designer Kathryn A. Devlin). There are occasionally sudden shifts in the lighting, moments where a brightly lit room becomes a dim blue memory or a comfortably lit dining room evolves into what can only be described as having the feel of an interrogation room with the use of a spotlight. During these scenes, actors fall away like marionettes while the subjects of the new scene become suddenly disaffected and out of time. It’s a jarring but superb visual effect that builds up tension the same way a horror film might.
And then there is the sound design, which is attributed to local music and choreography duo slowdanger. There are genuinely affecting moments in Driftless’ score that do wonders for creating mood and tension. Minimal electronic beats come in and out of scenes like waves, adding a warmth, dissonance and simple beauty that help ground the play emotionally.
Director Adil Mansoor has done an admirable job of steering the juggernaut that is this play into each disparate emotional and intellectual beat necessary for its success. And I would be remiss not to give praise to a skilled and consistent cast. Siovhan Christensen excellently communicates loss, love and righteous anger on an artfully naturalistic scale, most especially when her character is most at odds with the reality threatening to consume her. Ken Bolden manages to play two very literally similar characters and make them feel like entirely different human beings, which must surely be next to impossible to do this naturally. Alec Silberblatt’s Pittsburgh-ese is likely to raise some eyebrows, but the power of his presence is not in contest. Trevor Butler’s transition from a young intellect searching for his father’s acknowledgment to community leader belies palpable truth. In many ways, the responsibility is Tammy Tsai’s to carry the political action of the play, and her godly St. Barbara’s weird yet funny technical breakdowns are a highlight; she is walking a balance beam between lecture and pretense, and it’s her ability to embody character that bolsters the play’s central theme.
Driftless is a play of artistic sublimity: simultaneously an environmentally conscious spider web of interlocking symbols and a relatable story of action and consequence. Whether this “final” version of Hatch Arts Collective’s ongoing experiment will change the minds of pro-fracking individuals is questionable. Whether this creative team are onto something is not. Although Driftless is, in every aspect, a project that feels like the result of sleepless nights and countless hard work, I can only hope it resurfaces somehow, even indirectly.
This play is an excellent example of what Pittsburgh theater is, and what it can aspire to. Those paying attention may also find it is also an example of what an empowered individual can do.
Special thanks to Hatch Arts Collective for complimentary press tickets.
Unfortunately, Driftless closed August 14th but for more information about Hatch Arts Collective and their goals, click here.