When playwright John Biguenet first returned to his flooded Lake Vista home five weeks after Hurricane Katrina, he was struck by a strange sight.
"When I opened the front door of my house, immediately in front of me it looked like filaments of cotton candy in red and gold and yellow and green," he says. "It was really gorgeous — and then I realized it was mold."
Different types of mold covered every surface — slimy molds, grey cotton ball-like clusters, black mold — and filled the air. As Biguenet wrote in a series of blog posts as a guest columnist for The New York Times, the mold filled every fold of clothing on the second floor, which had not been touched by water. For months, when the wind blew in his neighborhood, he would wheeze as more mold wafted over from houses not gutted or sealed. Mold wasn't new to New Orleans, but post-Katrina it was everywhere, even burrowing into the interior wooden skeletons of homes.
Mold also is the title and central metaphor for the third play in Biguenet's trilogy about New Orleans after the levee failures in 2005. In the drama, Trey and Marie Guidry return to Trey's parents' flood-wrecked home a year after the storm to meet with an insurance adjuster. Abandoned homes and 4-foot-tall grass fill the hard-hit neighborhood. As they assess the damage, the adjuster warns them about mold: "It's alive, but it don't ever move. Just sends out spores all the time, infecting everything else." They have to decide what to do — rebuilding the house or walking away from the loss are equally impossible choices. Neither erases what happened, but the decision could tear them apart.
Biguenet is known for plays, short stories (The Torturer's Apprentice: Stories), novels (Oyster) and translation work, and he was named 2012's Louisiana Writer of the Year by the Louisiana Library Association. After the levee failures, however, he became a reporter and columnist for the Times. He wrote about shuttered institutions, discarded furniture and debris, being a New Orleanian in exile, displacement and the daunting task of cleaning a flooded home — subjects that have resurfaced in the plays he's written about the experience.
In 2007, Rising Water, the first play in his Katrina trilogy, premiered at Southern Rep and became the theater's longest-running, most successful production ever. In it, a couple, Camille and Sugar, wake in the middle of the night as floodwater tops their mattress. They flee into the attic, where they are surrounded by artifacts of their life together, and struggle to break through to the roof, hoping to be rescued. Shotgun followed in 2009, and it explored how New Orleanians lived together in the months after the flood. In it, Beau and Eugene Harlan, a white father and son from Gentilly, move into half of a shotgun double in Algiers, owned by Mattie Godchaux, a black woman who has her displaced father living with her on the other side. An unexpected romance is born out of the unlikely circumstances.
The plays all are shaped by the city's architecture, from attics full of memories to shared walls to the unremediated home in Mold. And all focus on a relationship.
"I realized love stories allow you to expose a lot about a catastrophe," Biguenet says.
While writers inevitably address subjects that are familiar, Biguenet's trilogy focuses on a tragedy shared by a city and watched around the globe. Presenting the plays in New Orleans has ensured an audience intimately familiar with the setting and sensitive about its veracity. During the premiere run of Rising Water, some people clapped and others stood stunned at the end of the show. Many immediately sat back down in silence.
"Everyone stayed for the talk back," says Southern Rep artistic director Aimee Hayes. "The show ran for two-and-a- half months. It was tough outside. If you left, you had to go face your own losses and your own grief. We had to watch this couple on the roof. It ends in this strange triumphant way with the sirens. It was one of those magic moments in the theater when it was so silent you could hear a pin drop."
During the talk back after the show, people shared their own Katrina stories.
"It redefined what theater is about," Biguenet says. "In theater, you see people who are your neighbors — you recognize as your own, talking about what's going on.
"It made me rethink Euripides and Shakespeare writing for their communities."
Biguenet's plays have been well-received outside New Orleans as well. Rising Water received a commission from the National New Play Network in fall 2006, months before its New Orleans opening. There have been 25 staged readings and full productions of the three works around the country. Mold opens in New Orleans just as a production of Rising Water closes at the Swine Palace in Baton Rouge and Shotgun closes at Theater 810 in Lafayette.
In the interim since Shotgun, Biguenet spent time at Britain's National Theatre in London developing Night Train, a play about a con man traveling by train in Europe, which premiered at New Jersey Repertory Theater. Broomstick is a one-person play in iambic pentameter that will premiere at New Jersey Rep in September. Blending humor and horror, a witch reveals how she discovered her powers and explains how she enacts her own judgments of good and evil. In addition to teaching at Loyola University New Orleans, Biguenet also has returned to short-story writing and has another novel in the works. But recently, he's been working on Mold.
He introduced a draft at a workshop at Southern Rep in December 2012. Some of the actors have parallels with the characters they play. Like her character Amelia, Carol Sutton's home had its first floor flooded. Kerry Cahill plays Marie, and like the character, she's the only cast member not originally from New Orleans. She's lived here most of the time since graduating from Loyola University, and as Marie, she's amazed at how satisfied New Orleanians can be with a city plagued with problems like poor schools and crime. Trey, meanwhile, is fiercely proud of his roots and being the third generation in his family to bear the name Emile Guidry. Trey Burvant, who plays Trey Guidry, grew up in Covington and had been living in the Northeast, but the day after Hurricane Katrina, he convinced his wife to move their family of five from Boston to New Orleans.
"On Aug. 28, we were looking at buying tickets to look at places in [Los Angeles]," Burvant says. "On Aug. 30, I told her we're moving to New Orleans.
"She thought I was crazy. There's the line Marie says about lead and stuff in the soil. My wife said those exact words to me. I had that actual same conversation."
Since the first reading of Rising Water for an audience of theater professionals in the National New Play Network, Biguenet has been adamant that New Orleanians be able to recognize these local characters. In Act 2 of Rising Water, the hole Sugar punches in the roof is only big enough for Camille to escape. Sugar spends the act with just his head popping out through the hole.
"Some people said if I made it absurd, I'd have a play that was timeless," Biguenet says. "It already looked like (Samuel) Beckett's Happy Days with just the head above the roof. The next morning, I woke up and said, 'No. This play is for New Orleans.'"
The current cast shares that sense of dedication both to the story's characters and the audience.
"We feel an extreme responsibility to tell this story correctly and right and well," Cahill says. "We know what it means."
One suggestion Biguenet incorporated into all three plays was to make it possible for audiences to laugh. Sugar and Camille are New Orleanians who have plenty of charm and natural humor. Over time, some lines developed humor in unexpected ways. While stuck in the attic, Camille wonders if the water is rising so quickly because the levees have collapsed. Sugar laughs it off: "Oh, don't talk crazy, woman. The Army built those levees — the Army Corps of Engineers."
"Now whenever people hear that line, they burst into laughter," Biguenet says with a grin. "In 2006, that line wasn't funny. Now it's funny."
In a workshop and in rehearsal, Mold also has gone through revisions and clarifications of characters and their motivations. Biguenet first heard the piece read aloud at the December workshop and rearranged parts of the play. In the weeks before opening, he, director Mark Routhier and the cast have explored the characters to make more of the story have action.
"What's been amazing is the way we've gotten our fingers dirty with the script," Routhier says. They've streamlined dialogue, fine-tuned humorous moments and dug into its emotional depths.
"Directorially, what's interesting is to find intensity without turning it into a yell fest," Routhier says. "You delve into these deep emotions and it's scary. We're trying to find that. We're trying to find those moments born out of necessity. It's a balance — something deeply seeded inside that needs to get worked out."
In rehearsals, the cast has improved some scenes by engaging their conflicts. The insurance adjuster Edgar (Randy Maggiore) isn't written as a villain — he's doing what he can for the Guidrys using the rules he is provided by the insurance company. But he and the Guidrys get riled up over what those rules are, and that conflict was sharpened during experimentation with the scene.
"There's an honesty (about the characters) we're trying to get to," Routhier says. "I think there's a beautiful balance between what was (post-Katrina) reality and the theatrical license we're giving it."
They also used improvisation to explore how Trey and Marie relate in the play.
"(Biguenet) had planted all these beautiful seeds," Burvant says. "And we wanted to make sure each one of them blossomed. It's been an extraordinarily open process. And he's been very willing to take questions and respond. In places where we can't connect the dots emotionally, we've asked for the opportunity to work on it. ... I didn't know of any other way to get in there and grind it all up and see where the play wanted to go. It was driving toward that. This was just a tool that, as a bunch of collaborators, we used to get there. John has been quite accommodating."
Biguenet has embraced the process to find the best way to tell the story. And he's dedicated to rewriting. Before he published Shotgun, he added a scene he felt the play needed, though it had not been included in any productions.
The trilogy also has been informed by Biguenet's dogged reporting and assessment of the phases of recovery after the storm.
"My intention was to depict what circumstances were in (August) 2006 that we faced," Biguenet says.
"The adrenaline kept us going for a while," he says. "And then exhaustion set in by the next summer, when it was really clear that the government could not facilitate a plan that would help get us back soon."
In Mold, the Guidrys are caught in that limbo. After a year of displacement in Houston, they are just beginning to figure out what to do with the home, but people who have been in New Orleans don't want their neighborhoods' recovery held back by indefinitely unattended or blighted properties. At that point, New Orleanians found themselves in different situations that were both reasonable and at odds.
Some of that strife is balanced by the absurdity of the situation, which Biguenet at times plays for humor. He's fit other people's stories into the plays. Once while sitting in a coffee shop, he overheard an insurance agent say into a cellphone: "It's our obligation to tow the car, but you have to get it off the roof." He used the line in Shotgun. Mold is similarly full of unlabeled-but-real quotes and observations.
The plays may be more timely or timeless than expected. Artistic Director John Pietrowsky of Playwrights Theatre in Madison, N.J., liked the plays and held a staged reading and full production of Rising Water in 2008 and a reading of Shotgun. Since then, Pietrowsky has had a more personal experience with Hurricane Sandy. His home lost power, and for two weeks, he and his wife actually lived in the theater, which was attached to a property with a generator. They also helped in-laws clean a Long Beach Island, Miss., home, which was flooded with 5 feet of water.
"We're ready for Mold," Pietrowsky says. "I think there will be an audience for that play."