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Camille Spirlin and Brian Tichnell in Runaway Home at the Fountain Theatre. (Photo by Ed Krieger)
Camille Spirlin and Brian Tichnell in Runaway Home at the Fountain Theatre. (Photo by Ed Krieger)

Runaway Home

Reviewed by Neal Weaver
Fountain Theatre
Through November 5 

RECOMMENDED

Two years after Hurricane Katrina, playwright Jeremy J. Kamps went to New Orleans as a volunteer, “gutting and mucking” waterlogged, mold-ridden and decaying houses. He was able to observe firsthand the endless problems that plagued local residents in their efforts to rebuild and restore their destroyed communities: government assistance that came too late or not at all, displaced people unable to find lost friends and relatives, racism, red-tape and sometimes deliberate obstruction.

Kamps centers his play on 14-year-old Kali (Camille Spirlin), a smart, feisty runaway who’s trying to live on her own in the ruins of her old neighborhood in the Lower 9th Ward. Before Katrina, she was a prize-winning student, but now she must concentrate on street smarts and other survival skills.

During Katrina, Kali, her mother Eunice (Maya Lynne Robinson), and her elderly grandmother had to retreat to the roof of their house to escape the rising floodwaters. Passing helicopters that seemed to offer hope of rescue photographed the scene and moved on. Finally, a rescue boat arrived, but by that time, grandma was in a bad state, and she died on the boat. To make room for living passengers, her body was cast overboard, despite her daughter’s protests. For a time, Kali and Eunice took refuge in Baton Rouge, but when the play begins they have returned to Eunice’s house, where hardships and traumas have destroyed relations between them. When, in the course of an argument, Eunice slaps her daughter, Kali reacts by attacking her mother and running away.

On the streets, Kali encounters Lone Wolf (Brian Tichnell), a volunteer relief worker and a self-styled anarchist, and an elderly neighbor, Mr. Dee (Jeris Poindexter). Eventually, she finds part-time employment in a convenience store run by Armando (Armando Rey), a Latino man seeking to make enough money to bring his two daughters to America.

Meanwhile, Eunice’s lover Tat (Leith Burke), who’d been separated from her in the storm and has been searching for her for three years, reappears. Also in the mix is Shana (Karen Malina White), Eunice’s out-spoken neighbor and a local community organizer.

When Kali acquires a gun for protection, it eventually leads to events that are worse than the things it was meant to protect her from.

Director Shirley Jo Finney has given us a richly textured tapestry of life in the aftermath of Katrina assembling a strong cast and deploying it with verve, sympathy and humor. The play is saved from being merely a political tract by the richness of its characters, the richest being Kali herself — a bright teenager who has had to learn to be a liar and con-artist to survive. Spirlin turns in a vivid, funny, and moving performance, while Robinson’s Eunice, strong and disenchanted, ultimately proves a loving mother. Tichnell’s Lone Wolf is a well-meaning but pretentious and preachy pseudo-intellectual, and all the others provide strong support.

 

The Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Avenue, Los Angeles. Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; Mon., 8 p.m.; (323) 663-1525 or www.FountainTheatre.com. Running time: One hour and 40 minutes, with no intermission.

 

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