Hotter summers and lesser snowfall aren’t the only signs of climate change in our area –– there are also the floods. Of 1935, 1956, 1972, and, according to “The Next Storm,” of 2022. This new play by local writer Thom Dunn imagines an Ithaca in the year 2030, when weather extremes (102 degrees in November!) have pushed residents to the brink.
The current production on Cornell’s mainstage—a collaboration of Civic Ensemble and Cornell’s Department of Performing and Media Arts—is the result of two years of community conversations about the imminent dangers of climate change. Creatively directed by Civic Ensemble’s Godfrey L. Simmons, Jr., “The Next Storm” shows numerous stakeholders (including “green” developers, residents, city officials, scientists and students) wrestling with what steps to take to best benefit—but there’s the rub. Who benefits and at what cost?
A proposed sustainable housing development, a series of verdant towers, would eradicate homes in Fall Creek and require blocking off the waterfall. The developer and his wife are at odds, the developer and the council leader are at odds, the council leader and her daughter are at odds, high school students are at odds with their teacher—in short, everyone’s at loggerheads with someone. The play opens on the large cast assembling, each person crying out an indecipherable grievance until there’s complete cacophony.
The point about climate change being a divisive issue is dramatically made, but the unfolding story of these characters doesn’t take us much further. It takes a while to discern the various relationships and the role of the much-invoked Percy, a young woman who died fighting the ecological fight.
The central storyline is carried by Carley Robinson as the community leader trying to please everyone; Donna Acquavella and Karina Savillo as the squabbling contractor and activist wife; the grieving teacher (Rachel Gould), and the scientist (Jeremy Jimenez), who resorts to a sock puppet telling corny jokes to express his feelings. Unfortunately, many of the characters (however passionately acted) remain, for varying reasons, ultimately unsympathetic. And much of the action involves the different constituents arguing stridently with one another, which becomes more wearing than illuminating.
The realistic narrative is complicated by the presence of two surreal characters, larger-than-life metaphysical figures in flowing robes and elaborate hairpieces. The blue-faced one in black Darth Vader-ish headpiece (Levi Wilson) seems to be Self-Interest (though the program says “Phagos,” which suggests “The Devourer”); the other (Zachariah Menchaca), in long white dreads, is Hope (or Elpis, the Greek spirit of hope, an arcane bit of mythology).
One character, an elderly black woman (Rhodessa Jones) who recalls all the Ithaca floods, invokes this latter being (though the neighborhood kids thinks she’s babbling about Elvis, and until we peruse the program, so do we). This old sage (among other formulaic figures, like the petulant teen and the rigid teacher) connects the literal and spiritual realms. This otherworldliness is perhaps the play’s most interesting feature, giving us ritualistic moments that carry poetic emotion—the aged woman slowly raking leaves; a girl isolated, standing weeping amidst a storm.
This ethereal theme also inspires the absolutely brilliant stage environment, a collaboration of designers Sarah Lambert (set), Joey Moro (lighting), Warren Cross (sound), and Jeff Hodges and Nick Hussong (video). The backdrop screen is the most lyrical, fluid, and engaging aspect of the show: the two spirit-figures move silhouetted behind it; huge, stunning graphic titles flash across it; rain and lightning and flowing water wash over it. High movable blackboards are scrawled on in chalk, adding to the palimpsest effect. Two teens (Kriti Sinha, Isaiah Rosenstein) converse in real time on their e-tablets; their faces huge above us (ok, maybe this device is tech for its own sake).
Some history of Ithaca’s flood control is introduced, along with historical photos (a local gathering of the Klan); there’s an account of the 1779 Sullivan scorched-earth campaign against the First Peoples. The implication is that once again non-whites will be the ones to suffer: black residents living in downtown Ithaca’s flood plain. Throughout, we’re reminded that the adults have mucked up this world and the next generation (though here a far cry from Greta Thunberg) must spearhead change.
Agitprop theater can inform us or lead to action; but long and overly ambitious, “The Next Storm”—which ends on a forced show of communal allegiance—instead risks leaving us restlessly discontent.
“The Next Storm,” by Thom Dunn, directed by Godfrey L. Simmons, Jr. At Cornell’s Kiplinger Theatre Nov. 22-23. Tickets: schwartztickets.com.
Barbara Adams, a regional theatre and arts writer, teaches writing at Ithaca College.