Review – new play ‘White Ash Falling’ stumbles in exploring horrors of 9/11

John Monaghan Detroit Free Press

Where were you when the Twin Towers fell? The answer to that question is charged with drama, especially for people who lost a loved one in the terrorist attack.

Several such stories are told in the new play White Ash Falling 9/11, and many are compelling. The problem with the Detroit Repertory Theatre show is the drama they are wrapped around: It’s a play-within-a-play that is sometimes compelling but more often contrived.

I have no idea whether playwright Thom Molyneux lost anyone during the September 11, 2001, attacks, but at least one of his characters has. She’s a distraught woman (Janee Ann Smith) whose car strikes a retaining wall outside a diner. A restaurant waitress (Kathryn Mahard) and one of her regulars (Harold Uriah Hogan) quickly deduce that the woman had a death wish. When you hear her 9/11 story, you understand why she is so messed up.

The woman’s drama unfolds stage left on Harry Wetzel’s evocative set, which is split down the middle. On one side is the diner set, compete with a counter, cafe tables and a bottomless pot of coffee. On the other is the dressing room of an Off-Broadway theater where a play about the horrors of 9/11 is being staged. The three actors from the diner scene also portray the actors who are performing in the play. We watch as they remove their costumes and makeup and talk about their craft.

The show is ultimately about the way we deal with loss and the way emotion is portrayed onstage. How much of your real-life pain should you be putting out there for an audience, and at what cost?

Richard (Hogan), who plays the customer in the Off-Broadway show, is especially interested in talking offstage about the characters’ motivations. In the process, he reveals where he was on 9/11 and also shares another horrifying tale of personal loss. Mahard fares best in two distinct roles: She plays the Jersey-accented waitress, but backstage she’s the seemingly wealthy ingenue Gwen. Smith is good in the role of a popular, somewhat standoffish TV actress who is testing her chops in live theater.

Detroit Rep veteran Hogan hits the same notes in his dual roles. His trademark stammer is better-suited to the empathetic restaurant patron than the self-assured, sometimes abrasive Richard. Hogan never nails the ambivalent feelings of fatherly concern and romantic attraction that I think Richard is supposed to show toward Gwen.

Despite the back-and-forth nature of the play, director Lynch Travis doesn’t give his actors much to do physically. The show is pretty static and is likely as compelling to read as it is to watch.

Despite the need for a 20-minute trim, “White Ash Falling 9/11” wraps up nicely with a line that summarizes the play’s noble intentions. Richard’s heartfelt “Help me help you” is a profound and simple statement about the way survivors of any tragedy should treat one another. Too bad it wasn’t attached to a better play.

‘White Ash Falling 9/11’

Two stars out of four stars
8:30pm Thursday-Friday, 3 & 8:30pm Saturday, 2 & 7:30pm Sunday. Through June 28, 2015.
Detroit Repertory Theatre
13103 Woodrow Wilson, Detroit
$20, $17 advance

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