Playwright/director Jim Fitzmorris and actor Dane Rhodes are trading and mimicking inflections of the word "Judea" in a rehearsal of From a Long Way Off at the Westwego Performing Arts Center. They arrive at a delivery that's equal parts stump speech and sermon. In Fitzmorris' new drama, Rhodes plays Seamus Quincannon, a failed politician, recovering alcoholic and community leader trying to save an Irish Channel church from being closed by New Orleans' archdiocese a year after Hurricane Katrina. The larger-than-life Quincannon is a true New Orleans character — boisterous, savvy, not perfect but redeemable and determined. It's a role Rhodes jumped on.
"Jim writes great vernacular," Rhodes says during a rehearsal break. "But he's like Tennessee Williams: for every word spoken, there's 300 more words behind it in his head. Two of my favorite roles were in his plays — The Visitation and House of Plunder."
In his latest work, Fitzmorris offers a fictionalized take on two local struggles. The first is the landmark 1977 mayoral election, which resulted in a victory for Ernest "Dutch" Morial, the city's first African-American mayor. The fictional Quincannon is one of his failed opponents, who later slips into alcoholism and only dries out decades later following Hurricane Katrina. In the second part of the play, Quincannon is again leading a campaign, this time to save the fictional St. Columban Church from being closed by the archdiocese which is consolodating its properties and services.
The 1977 mayoral election was a wild event. In the initial election, Morial finished just ahead of three others in a full field of candidates. In the runoff against the second-place finisher, he was fortunate to get the most favorable match-up of the three, Fitzmorris says. In Quincannon, the playwright created an inspired but richly flawed politician who loses that runoff.
Quincannon gets a shot at redemption in trying to save St. Columban. In many ways it's a smaller battle, but it resonates, echoing the 1977 election's issues of shifting politics and social change. And it's a big story because it reflects how New Orleans is characterized by its neighborhoods. In Long Way Off, the archdiocese is trying to sell the St. Columban property to developers, and that will affect not just the church's congregation but also the makeup of the neighborhood — at a time when all sorts of post-flood rebuilding battles are raging across the city. It's not a Katrina story, because it's not about flood losses. The Irish Channel stayed high and dry. The archdiocese has its own issues to deal with, but the city is full of new faces, interests and opportunities because of the flooding. Fitzmorris weaves them all together in a play that's both full of humor and local color but is about some of the city's most important issues.
"It's a big show," Fitzmorris says, referring to both the issues at stake and the 25 characters played by a cast of 12. "It's the story of us. I hope New Orleanians recognize it. It's not a New Orleans you get to see often on stage."