If you didn't know about this world-premiere play's Greek roots, it could seem a strangely formal tale set amid the chaotic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Why, for instance, would a young junkie named Cassy, supposedly gifted with prophecy, be possessed by the god Apollo? And why would a highly intelligent woman celebrate the return of her husband by lighting candles all over the roof of her badly flood-damaged home New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward, thus turning it into an incredible fire hazard?
Both of those elements — Cassandra and the lighting of a welcome beacon — are from the Greek but seem odd here.
The incongruous meshing of Ancient Greek and contemporary American eventually finds a tentative balance in director Leah C. Gardiner's TheatreWorks production, largely thanks to a masterful and entertaining performance by Laiona Michelle as Clementine (a jazzy New Orleans spin on the name Clytemnestra).
Michelle is a powerful force, especially as mother to her college-age son Reginald (Matt Jones), on leave from his studies at Columbia, and her daughter Iphy, who was presumed drowned in the flood though her body has not been recovered.
Clementine awaits the return of trumpet-playing husband, Jaffy (Jack Koenig), who, along with so many thousands of Katrina refugees, has been trying his luck in Houston for nine months. After a crackling scene between Clementine and Reginald (as they light those infernal candles), Jaffy arrives home with a surprise: a teenage junkie he calls Cassy (Jayne Deely). He's helping her overcome her addiction (he's been there, done that), and she used her gift of prophecy to help him land some quick cash.
Jones' Reginald is almost as compelling as Michelle's Clementine. He's a man of two worlds: black (like his mother) and white (like his father), local (he grew up in the Lower Ninth) and deserter (he's going to school in New York). Much more than the sketchily drawn Jaffy, we get a sense of Reginald as a young man of tremendous potential and as the troubled child of a (now-recovered) drug addict. Like Michelle, Jones is adept at blending the formality of the Greek myth with the pulse of modern life.
Though Deely's Cassy is well performed, all twitches and starts, the character never seems quite of this world as much as a remnant of Aeschylus that makes the dramatic gears grind.
Set designer J.B. Wilson and lighting designer Steven B. Mannshardt convey the destructive clutter of the Lower Ninth Ward with the shell of a house that is barely livable. Electricity is sketchy at best, and surrounding the house is debris, downed power lines and a sense of life in a shattered but somehow barely habitable landscape.
There are too many moments when "Clementine" feels like a new play. Characters speak in exposition, telling each other things about history and their family that they already know, so it's really for our benefit more than any other. There's a certain classic formality to this kind of filling in the blanks, but in combination with the contemporary rhythms and humor of the dialogue, the mash-up can be jarring.
And ultimately, the re-telling of "Agamemnon" set against the devastation of Hurricane Katrina is also jarring. It makes a certain amount of sense, this "blues riff" on Aeschylus as Dietz calls it, and there is some unquestionable dramatic power. But my guess is that this story would carry similar weight even if it weren't set in the aftermath of a catastrophic natural disaster.
In the Aeschylus telling, Agamemnon has sacrificed his daughter in exchange for winds to blow his ships to battle in the Trojan War. Dietz uses the raging floodwaters to complicate the loss of the daughter, and we never really get to see why Jaffy might have made the choices he made.
How would any of us act in a life-and-death moment? Dietz's Jaffy makes a choice, but Dietz doesn't quite substantiate that choice in Jaffy's character development.
Much clearer is Michelle's Clementine, a respected nurse with her own complications stemming from the flood and her relationship with the man who once helped channel her prodigious talent for jazz piano. This tutor (Kenny Brawner) is less effective as the drama's ghostly chorus than he is as the pianist in the hot jazz quartet on stage (John Worley on trumpet, Richard Duke on bass and Kelly Fasman on drums).
It seems almost law that any story set in New Orleans has to include jazz music, and that law is effectively adhered to here. At first the music, composed by Justin Ellington, sets the scene and allows Brawner to sing some bluesy tunes. As the play progresses, the music becomes essential to the story. Especially important is a five-finger piano exercise that becomes a haunting refrain, allowing us to forget the battle between ancient and modern and connecting us to the heart of a family in trouble.
Unlike Aeschylus, Dietz makes room for hope amid the destruction and violence — a hope underscored by beautiful music.
Clementine in the Lower 9" by Dan Dietz, music by Justin Ellington, presented by TheatreWorks, at Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View. Running through Oct. 30 with 7:30 p.m. shows Tuesday and Wednesday, 8 p.m. shows Thursday through Saturday, 2 p.m. shows Saturday and Sunday and 7 p.m. shows Sunday. Tickets are $19-$69 with student, senior and educator discounts. Information at www.theatreworks.org or call 650-463-1960.