Reviewed by Deborah Klugman
Native Voices at the Autry
Native rights activist Mary Kathryn Nagle is an attorney as well as a playwright. Her latest work, Fairly Traceable, now premiering at Native Voices at the Autry, is a legal drama that pits a group of environmentalist lawyers representing a Native American tribe against a conglomeration of oil companies whose activities in the Louisiana bayou have devastated the region and the community. Besides taking up the right of Native Americans — and citizens in general I might add— to defend themselves against devastation wrought by corporate interests, the play deals with choices relating to ethnic identity: the decision to nurture or, in extreme cases, discard such identity, the degree of loyalty a Native American, or any member of a minority, owes their group, and the way in which these considerations influence a person’s behavior. The play also touches on the dilemma of members of tribal nations that have never been officially recognized by the federal government, a circumstance that undermines their already uphill battle for dignity and respect.
The time frame extends from the recent past to the year 2042, when the effects of climate change have precipitated such calamitous events as the ebbing away of the Massachusetts shore and the total erosion of Martha’s Vineyard. Gone too is New Orleans; Tulane University, where much of the story takes place, is now in Baton Rouge.
The story pivots on the romantic entanglement between two law students: Randy (Jason Grasl), a member of the Ponca tribe whose ambitions seem to outweigh his tribal loyalties, and Erin (Kyle Garcia), an idealistic young Chitimacha woman from the bayou, committed to fighting for environmental protections and justice for her people. Both are students at Tulane in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina, followed only weeks later by Hurricane Rita (the fourth-most intense Atlantic hurricane ever recorded) wreak their destruction.
One of those to lose their home is Erin’s widowed, French-speaking mother Susann (Shyla Marlin). Safely situated in Missouri, Randy’s comfortably middle-class family, which consists of his Dad (John Nielson), his mom ( Jennifer Bobiwash) and his younger sister Ann (an engaging Kinsale Hueston) fear for his safety and view the news of the flooding is viewed with alarm; only later do they also undergo grievous personal loss.
The play opens in future time, with Randy, now a professor, instructing his students in the legal concept from which the play takes its title: “fairly traceable,” first coined by Supreme Court Justice Scalia in 1992. The idea basically is that plaintiffs in environmental suits need to show clear causation between the actions of defendants — oil companies, for example — and the damages they are asked to be held accountable for, such as the pollution of seas and rivers, or the fostering of humungous unnatural storms. This is a high bar and difficult to achieve, and a dramatic high point in the play comes when Erin acts as lead attorney bringing suit against an oil company, while Randy, now employed by a prominent law firm, defends them.
Directed by Jon Lawrence Rivera, Fairly Traceable is one of those productions you respect but whose shortcomings cannot be ignored. There’s not much shading to the plot— not only in personalizing the battle by placing the lovers on opposite sides of the issue, but also in the construction of the subplots: the somewhat simplistic generation gap between Randy and his Dad, a print journalist who objects to broadcast news, or between Erin and her Mom, a stubborn traditionalist with little nuance. When Randy’s mom hears that he’s considering environmental law, she gets bent out of shape because in her mind a vocation like that would define him as an Indian not capable of tackling other areas of the law. (Perhaps that’s a real consideration I’m not aware of, but here it plays out as a device to flesh out the story rather than as a compelling thread.)
The lead performances are also in need of shading and finesse. One major problem for me was Garcia’s choice to play Erin as wide-eyed ingenuous idealist, quick to take umbrage, instead of a poised and incisive young professional. Neither she nor Grasl are buyable as attorneys, nor as lovers. The most well-grounded performances were the engaging Hueston in an understated performance as Randy’s sister, and John Nielson as his father. Other supporting performances lack serious credibility.
Christopher Scott Murillo’s streamlined well-appointed set works well for the seminar and courtroom scenes, but it’s a distraction in others; intimate scenes do not play well against that backdrop. Projecting designer Lily Bartenstein’s video images of the storm on the ceiling is terrific in concept but it’s difficult to maintain simultaneous focus both on these images and the performers on the set.
The Autry Museum in Griffith Park, 4700 Western Heritage Way, L.A. Thurs.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 p.m. and 7 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through March 26. https://theautry.org/events/performing-arts/native-voices-autry-presents-world-premiere-fairly-traceable. Running time: two hours and 10 minutes with a 15 minute intermission.