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Emotional Rescue 

John Biguenet was tired of telling his own Katrina story. The storm had forced the award-winning short-story writer, poet and playwright to temporarily abandon fiction in favor of a non-fictional first person narrative approach. In the month following the hurricane, Biguenet became a guest columnist for The New York Times, recording his experiences in the wake of the storm.

"I found it very embarrassing at first," Biguenet admits. "I think one reason I turned to fiction was so that I didn't have to talk about myself. I could talk about more interesting people."

Those people are Sugar and Camille, a long-married New Orleans couple in their 50s, and they are the subjects of Biguenet's new play Rising Water, which debuts at Southern Rep. Biguenet is far from finished with Katrina -- the play begins as the floodwaters are rising in the couple's bedroom -- but he felt it was time to examine the storm from a fictional perspective.

"I felt a need to begin to find a creative way ... to get more deeply into aspects of what happened to us, for which nonfiction was inappropriate."

In order to delve deeper, beyond the description and reporting of his New York Times columns, Biguenet decided that the play would be the best literary form. A short story would be difficult because of the need for multiple points of view. Even a novel, which has room for numerous viewpoints and separate stories, might not have the space for readers, as Biguenet puts it, "to glimpse the variety of experiences New Orleanians faced following Katrina." A play would present one specific situation, letting Biguenet focus only on what is taking place in those moments.

What Biguenet's nonfiction did assist him with was in finding the right set of circumstances for his play. He had written a column, "How They Died," in which he began to wonder what it must have been like for people who went to bed that fateful Monday night not knowing the levees had failed. Biguenet couldn't let go of the image of a couple trapped in their attic.

By the time he started writing the play, Biguenet had already been discussing it with Ryan Rilette, artistic director at Southern Rep. The two had collaborated previously on Biguenet's play The Vulgar Soul, which was part of Southern Rep's 2005 season. They saw the new production as a chance to expose the emotional crisis that so many were experiencing post-Katrina.

"We both felt that the one thing the media wasn't covering was the sort of existential angst that we were all going through -- the re-questioning of our lives," Rilette recalls. "We thought we needed a piece that is more philosophical in nature that captures what it's like to lose everything in a blink of an eye and be sort of stranded, trying to figure out what to do with the rest of your life."

As the water fills their bedroom, Sugar and Camille realize they've lost everything but themselves and their marriage. They have been married more than 30 years, and their relationship has had its pleasures and pains. Their children are grown and have moved out, so what's left is the house and an aging couple. Now, the house is lost, but what about the marriage -- does love survive? For Biguenet, this is a universal question that all married people eventually face.

"It's about a couple being together a long time and beginning to see mortality and how do they go on loving each other," Biguenet asks. "It's in a context and a setting that presses upon them in its own way."

That setting is a hot and humid attic filled with family memories, and this environment leaves little room for escape with water lapping against the roof. Sugar and Camille have to face each other and they have to make decisions about the present and the future -- just like so many of us did and continue to do. Rilette hopes that this begins a dialogue for the audience.

"I'm hoping every night after the show people will stick around and talk and share their own experience," he says.

Rilette knows his actors, Danny Bowen and Cristine McMurdo-Wallis, will be challenged with each show. That they've both experienced the hurricane contributes to their understanding of their characters' predicament, but it won't lessen the emotional toll.

"If they truly invest in the given circumstances of the play from the beginning all the way through every night," Rilette says, "they're going to be exhausted beyond belief."

Rising Water opens March 14, but it has already garnered national recognition. The National New Play Network (NNPN) granted the play it's 2006 NNPN Commission Award, and it was one of six plays selected for a staged reading at the 2006 National Showcase of New Plays. The National Endowment for the Arts gave it a 2007 Access to Artistic Excellence production and development grant.

While Biguenet is thankful for the acknowledgments, they're not what keep him writing and rewriting a script that has already seen numerous revisions. The play must be accurate and truthful because he is telling a Katrina story and he is relating it to his fellow New Orleanians. In Biguenet's mind, we all have these stories; each one is sacred and by telling them we strengthen our community. For him, there could be no greater reward than to hear audience members leave his play saying, "He got it right."

click to enlarge Director Ryan Rilette and writer John Biguenet - work with actors Danny Bowen and Cristine - McMurdo-Wallace on Rising Waters. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • Director Ryan Rilette and writer John Biguenet work with actors Danny Bowen and Cristine McMurdo-Wallace on Rising Waters.
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