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Higher Ground



On Aug. 29, 2005, Sugar and Camille were asleep in their home, about 15 blocks from one of the levees that broke that day. Local writer John Biguenet (who made them up) says that short distance from the levee added to the danger, rather than decreased it. The problem was that some went to sleep thinking "New Orleans had ducked the bullet," like they told us incessantly on radio.

Biguenet should know. He researched the disaster. In the first weeks after Katrina, he wrote a series about the hurricane for The New York Times. Biguenet, who has written poetry, prose and other plays, went on to craft a play called Rising Water, which is currently enjoying its world premiere at Southern Rep under the direction of Ryan Rilette.

Being stranded is one of the central themes of the play, as it was of the disaster in general. Sugar and Camille are stranded in their home. Will one or both escape? That's the grim, suspenseful, underlying question. There's some philosophical pondering in the dusty garret (first act) and commonplace roof (second act), although, to be fair, if you're not going to question the basic nature of things when death starts to lap up your life and work like a thirsty dog, then when would you start?

From a dramatic point of view, the characters face some more pressing, practical issues. Can we get out alive, for instance? And, should we try resolving some of the nasty, suppurating psychological wounds we've caused each other before we have to drift into elegy. Considering the suddenness and apocalyptic extreme of the danger, it's surprising how much restraint the characters show. Their dilemma sneaks up on us, partly because it sneaks up on them. They can't really believe it's happening.

In any case, Camille (Cristine McMurdo-Wallis) climbs into view through the trapdoor in the attic. She's in her nightgown and carries a flashlight. She has a shout/chat with her husband, who is still downstairs. He doesn't want to abandon the house, which is filling up with water. He's got a flashlight as well. But he's giving up on the radio because the batteries are dying. He'd like to save some family photos. But this suggestion goes over with his wife about as well as the offer of a gadfly with a mare. So, Sugar (Danny Bowen), wearing shorts and T-shirt, joins his wife of 30 or 40 years in the attic and tries to calm her with his own kind of humor: "We got a little water in the house is all." Neither one has any clear idea where this deluge is coming from.

Now, however, they are in temporary safety. With the immediate threat backed off somewhat, they can drudge up their more usual sources of friction -- like Sugar's snoring or lack of it. Eventually, of course, the rising water blocks out all other concerns. Sugar uses some tools from their son's old toy tool chest to open a roof vent. So ends act one.

It also ends claustrophobia in its most extreme sense -- the fear of being entombed alive. Sugar and Camille, after all, are in their tiny attic surrounded by a few mementos, but none of these memories are edible. The couple has nothing to eat or drink. Neither mentions that the mysterious accumulation of water is lethal, but it's a sardonic demise -- drowning in Atlantis while dying of thirst. As for food, forget it. Hope there is -- in a hope chest that contains Camille's wedding dress. In act two, we move from claustrophobic to stranded. Both of these states are excellently embodied by Geoffrey Hall's set and William Liotta's lighting design.

Under Rilette's direction, McMurdo-Wallis and Bowen noodle with the Gordian knot of married life with an easy, befuddled confidence. They have not survived as a couple by coming up with brilliant solutions, and they know it. There is a moment when they both realize that Sugar is truly unable to squeeze through the vent in the roof. Very few of us ever face a small, quiet realization of such agonizing magnitude.

How much to tell of a story is always a puzzle. In this case, it would really be unfair to give the end away. Lives are at stake. You'll have to go see for yourself and decide if you agree. In any case, writer Biguenet and director Rilette host a discussion with the audience most nights, so you can put your two cents in.

Camille (Cristine McMurdo-Wallis) and Sugar (Danny Bowen) - try to figure out their next move as Katrina floodwaters rise, - forcing them into their attic.
  • Camille (Cristine McMurdo-Wallis) and Sugar (Danny Bowen) try to figure out their next move as Katrina floodwaters rise, forcing them into their attic.

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