Potent Scenes Buoy Catastrophic Theatre’s “American Falls”

Karina Pal-Montaño Bowers, left, John DeLoach, center, and Troy Schulze, right. Photo by Cody Duty

Karina Pal-Montaño Bowers, left, John DeLoach, center, and Troy Schulze, right. Photo by Cody Duty

“American Falls” takes a domestic tragedy that might have been told as a conventional narrative and fragments it through the interwoven monologues of several characters in the titular Idaho town.

Catastrophic Theatre's world premiere marks the playwriting debut of company member Miki Johnson. In recent years, Johnson has emerged as one of the city’s most distinctive actresses — and “American Falls” shows her on her way to becoming a distinctive dramatist.

Variable yet often potent, the play seems torn between its primary focus on one family’s tragedy and the desire to make its characters reflect the universals of human society. Press materials describing the play as a latter-day response to Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” suggest as much. But despite fleeting sallies in that direction, that’s not really the main thrust of the new play.

“American Falls” builds interest as it gradually reveals the connections between its characters. It depicts seven characters (not counting a brief role at the end). Four speak only in monologues, while three others are presented as a group in a bar, swapping tales of strange events.

The solo speakers predominate. The central figure is Samuel, an unbalanced outcast resentful of his wife and the young son born of her extramarital affair. Flanking him are Lisa, his abused wife seeking escape, and Samantha, his mother, who suggests her lifelong alcoholism may have “poisoned” Samuel.

The fourth solo figure is Billy Mound of Clouds, who represents a broader philosophical view — and who crosses paths with Samuel at a crucial point.

Bartender Eric, shown chatting with friends Maddie and Matt, is Lisa’s lover and father of her child — but his scenes don’t deal with that. These interludes are the least effective, because the tales the trio exchange seem aimless, sometimes forced and largely tangential to the central dramatic focus.

Johnson paints an atmosphere chiefly of reverie and regret; with Samuel, sometimes outright rage. More portentous reflections mix with references to popular culture, mostly TV shows (we may get a bit too much of that). But Johnson has a way with a telling line, as in describing a voice “so soothing that it’s irritating.” There are many affecting and well-shaped speeches, such as Lisa’s vision of an afterlife and Billy’s omniscient prophecy that closes the play.

As in several recent show, director Jason Nodler takes a minimalist tack with movement, yet shows his customary control of mood.

Kyle Sturdivant’s intense, embittered and volatile Samuel makes the strongest impression. Carolyn Houston Boone is wry and crusty as fatalistic Samantha. Ricky Welch plays Billy Mound of Clouds with stoicism and detached authority. Jessica Janes lends a rueful grace to Lisa.

Troy Schulze (as Eric), John Deloach (Matt) and Karina Pal Montano-Bowers (Maddie) perform capably in relatively underdeveloped roles.

Laura Fine Hawkes’ ingenious collage setting turns the play’s multiple locales into a continuum of living spaces.

Though not perfect, “American Falls” is promising.