Rebecca Gilman figures it took 20 years to turn an idea she had into her newest play. "I saw an 'American Experience' program on PBS about the 1889 flood in Johnstown, PA," Gilman says, "and I was immediately struck by the story."
Many events intervened between idea and realization, Gilman says, and more inspiration was necessary — including a way to connect the disaster with the world of the arts. Now her play, A True History of the Johnstown Flood, is receiving its world premiere at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. Robert Falls, the Goodman's artistic director and a Tony winner for the 1999 revival of Death of a Salesman, directs.
In the flood, on May 31, 1889, after days of heavy rain, the South Fork Dam, 14 miles from Johnstown — an industrial city 60 miles east of Pittsburgh — gave way, releasing nearly five billion gallons of water and killing more than 2,200 people. Wealthy Pittsburgh industrialists had built a club near the dam, and many people blamed the flood on the club, which had redesigned the dam and whose members included the steel magnates Henry Clay Frick and Andrew Carnegie. (A court ruled that the club was not responsible.)
She had the idea, "but I didn't know how to write about it," says Gilman, who is best known for Spinning Into Butter, which was presented at Lincoln Center Theater in 2000 and turned into a recent movie starring Sarah Jessica Parker, Beau Bridges and Miranda Richardson. Some years after seeing the PBS show, she read David McCullough's book The Johnstown Flood. "There was a mention of a theatre company, the Augustin Daly company. It was performing in Johnstown, and it got stuck on a train during the flood. There was something about the way McCullough described them — they were the calmest, the most prepared, the most willing to jump and run — that struck me. I started thinking about how artists respond to disaster."
Even that idea, though, was "pretty vague. But writing this play was always at the back of my mind. Then, after Hurricane Katrina, I was reading a piece by David Brooks in The New York Times on the similarity between the hysteria that surrounded the Johnstown flood and the hysteria surrounding Katrina in the days after — looting, bodies. A lot was true, but a lot seemed to come out of fear of the unknown.
"In the Johnstown flood, people were afraid of immigrant workers," she says. "In Katrina, they were afraid of the African-American population. That gave me the topicality I felt I needed."
That brought her back to the notion of "'How does an artist respond to catastrophe?' I thought the way to do it is to have artists in the moment faced with it." So she created the fictional Baxter Theatre Company, made up of three siblings. "Their parents were the leading man and leading lady of American touring theatre. The parents have passed away and have left the company to the children, who are having a hard time performing their parents' plays, which are going out of style."
They have been hired to perform at a fancy resort near an artificial lake in the mountains of Pennsylvania. "They become trapped in Johnstown and are on the verge of losing their company altogether," she says. "We see the compromises they have to make as a family and as artists, and the implications that has for them. And it's all played out against the backdrop of this terrible flood."