It takes a river catching on fire to get the public to support substantive environmental regulation or conservation. The Cuyohoga River fire of 1969 helped garner public support for the mission of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which was founded in 1970. But it was one of several out of control environmental catastrophes that graphically showed the public what unchecked pollution could lead to. Environmental disasters were nothing new, but a sense of urgency to address the problem finally became a matter of widespread public concern. The Cuyohoga, near Cleveland, Ohio, had been a sludge of oil and waste for years. It had caught fire many times, including as early as 1868. If nothing else, it shows how long it can take to not just raise awareness of a problem but actually intervene to effect change.
An awareness of the doomsday nature of polluting water sources animates the action in Cat's-Paw, William Mastrosimone's 1986 play about an environmental terrorist's aggressive tactics to hold government accountable and effect reform. While the play's notes acknowledge how 9/11 has changed perceptions of terrorism, it's worth noting that there was a small but determined eco-terrorism movement in the decade before Mastrosimone wrote his play. It was largely confined to the practice of "monkey wrenching" in which activists spiked trees to make them undesirable to lumber companies, and they sabotaged heavy equipment used by the companies. In imagining Cat's-Paw, Mastrosimone took his activist/terrorist Victor (Michael Aaron Santos) to a further extreme.
Victor is concerned about what the EPA has determined is an acceptable level of pollution to allow in water. He's got his finger on something that is both a scientific issue and a political problem. On the political end, an agency meant to regulate for safety can function as the exact opposite - essentially sanctioning abuse or making polluting legal. Incensed that the EPA is not doing its actual job, he takes one of its officials hostage.
The plot and dialogue in Cat's-Paw are very tight and compelling. Victor has arranged for a TV reporter (Ashley Ricord) to interview him and possibly the hostage. It's a coup for her to get the story, and he uses that as a bargaining chip to control the situation. Mastrosimone created Victor as a sort of made-for-film rogue philosopher/commando. He's clearly thought through many issues, combining his environmental concerns with a certain revolutionary bravado. And he's also egotistical and narcissistic.
The play flies by at a good clip, and director Mark Routhier keeps the tension tight. Some of the conveniences of creating the play make it stray from what is realistically plausible for a terrorist or reporter. It's hard to imagine that what the reporter unravels in an hour was left so magically intact during 35 days of the hostage's captivity, or the life and death choices among members of the group Victor leads. But it certainly works as a play, and the small cast does a great job with it. Cat's-Paw completes its run Thursday and Friday at 8 p.m. at AllWays Lounge.