As a professor of engineering tells us in “Spill,” Leigh Fondakowski’s altogether riveting oral-history play about the monumental BP oil spill of 2010, there are two types of disaster. One is natural; the other is man-made. But at times those two conjoin to create a catastrophe of extraordinary proportions. Consider, along with the BP story, such recent examples as Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, and the terrifying accident at the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan.
The fallout of these disasters — on the physical and emotional lives of those directly affected by them, as well as on the ecology of a vital area of the globe — is a major theme of “Spill,” now receiving a tour de force Midwest premiere by TimeLine Theatre, staged in the company’s “satellite” space at Stage 773.
But Fondakowski (head writer on “The Laramie Project,” another brilliant work of theatrical oral history) also drills deeply into the root cause of the “accident,” and the appallingly inept attempts to deal with its aftermath. And that only adds to the outrage it generates.
Fondakowski’s incisive direction of her work — a powerhouse mix of grief and muscle thrillingly conjured by an airtight ensemble of nine actors who play multiple roles, all superbly — builds from a slow burn to a ferocious explosion as it probes the roots of the greed, negligence and arrogance that caused the fiery destruction of the gargantuan Deepwater Horizon oil rig planted off the southeast coast of Louisiana. Eleven of the 126 people on the rig died. Many others were injured and traumatized. And as the oil kept pouring out into the water for nearly three months, until the well was finally capped on July 15, 2010, the damage became far more than “a spill.”
‘SPILL’ Highly recommended When: Through Dec. 19 Where: TimeLine Theatre at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Tickets: $38 – $51 Info: (773) 327-5252; www.timeline theatre.com Run time: 2 hours and 30 minutes with one intermission
It is the nature of the place that was so seriously damaged that we learn about first in the words of those who lived “at the end of one of the world’s great rivers” (the Mississippi) and felt deeply attached to it. But then we begin to hear from the wives and parents of the victims: Shelley Anderson (the remarkable Justine C. Turner), whose husband, Jason (the playful yet intense Chris Rickett), an experienced worker on the rig, had intimations that something would go wrong as he said goodbye to her one morning; or the father (Tim Decker), a lawyer whose son perished in the explosion of “a floating skyscraper,” and whose contempt for BP is palpable; or the mother (Kelli Simpkins, a knockout in three very different roles), whose 24-year-old son was “living the dream” thanks to the excellent salary he earned on the rig.
Fondakowski has mastered a technique for seamlessly lacing together interviews, evidence, missteps and damning testimony so that you are swept up in the escalating tension. And Simpkins, serving as narrator, provides just the right acerbic edge. She also is memorable in a remarkable turn as a native of the ruined marshlands who signs up with BP to work on the oil slick clean-up, which turns out to be yet another toxic experience.
The ensemble delivers uniformly fiery performances by Caren Blackmore (as the rare woman on the rig); Craig Spidle (as the engineering professor), Justin James Farley (as one of the elite team of workers who realizes they are being pressured by higher-ups to do very dangerous things); Christopher Sheard as a young crew member, and David Prete, altogether uncanny as BP executive Tony Hayward, whose statement at the height of the crisis (“There’s no one who wants this over more than I do. I’d like my life back.”) added fuel to the fire.
Sarah Lambert’s set (collapsible Erector-set-like posts, steel decks and tables and chairs that become the essential elements of disaster) is a minimalist marvel, with Betsy Adams’ evocative lighting, Mike Tutaj’s projections, Andre Pluess’ sound and Rachel Laritz’s costumes combining to turn a slow burn into a full conflagration.
“Spill” might drive you to ask: Why were the highly skilled workers on the rig, who knew they were being pushed by the powers that be to do ever more calamitous things, unable to say “No; we refuse.” Of course that is not how the workplace operates. And among the many reasons “Spill” will leave you so shaken is the sense of just how powerless an individual can be when caught up in corporate machinery.