Up a flight of stone steps in an anonymous building, way on the western edges of New York’s Hell’s Kitchen, there is a dark jewel of the spring theatre season. Please do all that you can to see it.
That Spill, written and directed by Leigh Fondakowski and produced by Ensemble Studio Theatre, is such an accomplished theatrical distillation of scrupulously researched oral history shouldn’t be a surprise. Fondakowski was also the head writer of Moisés Kaufman’s The Laramie Project, which cast a similar all-encompassing narrative beam over the homophobic murder of Matthew Shepard.
In Spill, Fondakowski oversaw the conducting of more than 200 hours of interviews, combed through documents and researched everything about the Deepwater Horizon oil platform collapse of April 2010, which killed 11 people and injured 17.
One-hundred and thirty million gallons of oil were discharged into the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, bringing environmental catastrophe to Louisiana, with traces of the slick making their way to the Florida Panhandle. It is the largest accidental marine oil spill in history.
The ensemble enacting these events in multiple roles are all equally excellent: Michael Cullen, Vince Gatton, Alex Grubbs, Ronald Alexander Peet, Molly McAdoo, Maurice McRae, Kelli Simpkins, and Greg Steinbruner.
The play is bounded by encounters between the wife of one of the deceased talking to (presumably) Fondakowski. She recalls her husband, and their love and commitment to one another, but utterly unsappily. She still remembers the night, when convinced he was going to propose, she ate and drank extremely gingerly, not wanting to accidentally eat her engagement ring.
But the proposal, and even their first kiss, doesn't come with a playwright’s romantic rosy adornment, but both captured in moments of real life; their last kiss—at the airport waving him off to Deepwater Horizon (owned by Transocean and chartered by BP), where she just knew he shouldn’t be flying to, and she couldn’t explain why—is especially jolting. (The play notes that the Macondo prospect, the site of the drilling, was also the name of the ill-fated town in Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s magical realist novel One Hundred Years of Solitude.)
One actor plays both Tony Hayward, former chief executive of BP as he gives evidence (and all credit to the company for not making him into a boo-hiss villain) and a father whose son died in the disaster. The son who died wasn’t a lawyer like he was, this father notes, adding angrily that he fully intends to use all his legal nous to make BP pay.
Fondakowski’s script is a wealth of detail and technical knowledge, clearly conveyed to a neophyte audience. It does not ring with righteous indignation: the detail of the incident, as calmly conveyed as it is here, is enough to stir that in the audience without any overt pushing.
Sarah Lambert’s ingenious scenic design makes the most of a bare and sparsely furnished stage area: the action is centered around a blue rectangle (symbolizing mostly water perhaps?), on the borders of which are raised platforms to evoke Deepwater Horizon itself, and around which are benches, used in courtroom and domestic scenes. The actors put on jackets and remove shirts and jackets to segue between characters—occasionally holding electrical lanterns aloft—with Lee Kinney’s sound design using simple, dirge-like beats and deeper, more menacing tones when disaster strikes.
Nick Francone’s lighting is simple and vivid, especially again at the moment of disaster; and the production also makes effective use of four video screens designed by David Bengali. Through those are variously telegraphed the secret feed BP initially kept to itself of oil belching out into the ocean floor, the oranges of fire burning on water, and the deceptively peaceful vistas of scarred waterlands.
The moment of disaster is viscerally, yet simply conveyed, with mesh paneling, clanging chains, and the sheer panic of the actors, all playing those caught up in the disaster.
First, there are the BP executives playing video games, unknowing that disaster is about to strike. Then there is the realization that something terrible is happening, and we watch the husband of the wife we have met already helplessly trying to marshal some kind of order. And then all very literal hell breaks loose, with mud, “like black rain,” showering down, and then explosions and fire and the terrifying lurching of the platform.
One survivor, by then in a rescue raft, recalls watching a figure running across the deck and still running over the edge as hellish fire consumed it. Another character recalls leaping from the deck, and hitting the water, and “swimming in fire and oil” until a passing ship proved his salvation. We learn the water was calm that day; if there had been five or even ten foot waves the death toll would have been much higher.
The tangle of wires that had been part of the platform become, hauntingly brushed against the floor by the company (hauntingly sounding like the ebb and flow of waves), a symbol of encroaching pollution in act two.
The wife of part one recalls her 5-year-old daughter claiming to have been visited by the ghost of her father telling her he is not coming back. The dead bodies are not recovered, but this man’s wife doesn’t share her mother-in-law’s hope her beloved husband will walk through the door. She knows he won’t.
Another man wants to make a quick buck out of joining the clean-up operation, but he ends up imperiling his own health. He says he only has himself to blame: greed got him there.
Greed, of course, is the heart of the catastrophe at the heart of the catastrophe. Primarily it is corporate greed, and what may really remain with you is the scale of BP’s apparent craven heartlessness not just afterwards, but even in the moments of the tragedy unfolding. Spill also suggests that heartlessness was compounded by their technical ineptitude in being unable for months to put a stop to the oil belching into the ocean itself.
Sure, one relation says: it was nice to go to the White House, and President Obama was solicitous. But Nancy Pelosi, unpublicized, was the one who really spoke to the victims’ families in depth. And Obama’s moratorium on drilling in the area came to an end just months later. BP itself resumed drilling there 15 months later.
The real tragedy, one wizened oil industry employee says at the end, is our addiction to, and dependency on, fossil fuels. It was the foundation of this disaster, the foundation of the victims’ deaths and injuries, the foundation of BP’s rushed, botched response to it, and the foundation of the much bigger environmental catastrophe the world is still careering towards.
Spill is an urgent, accomplished piece of theatre. It is not a call to action or cri de coeur. It is much calmer and narratively stealthier than that. But if you leave feeling both desperately sad and outraged, then it has done its bleak, brilliant job.
Spill runs until April 2nd at Ensemble Studio Theatre, 545 West 52nd Street, New York City. Book tickets here.