According to Joy Division singer Ian Curtis, it is love that will tear you apart. Nevertheless, innumerable tons of mud, rock, timber, and lava hurtling at speeds upwards of 250 miles per hour will also do a rather thorough job of dismemberment. Phenomenon, a performance piece conceived and directed by Alyse Rothman, script by Gordon Cox, and music by Lance Horne, juxtaposes the volcanic eruption of Mt. St. Helens with Curtis’s suicide—both took place on the morning of May 18, 1980.
The play opens on May 17, 1980, with the mimed morning routines of the townsfolk: vulcanologist Mark, his unhappy journalist wife Mary, punkette diner owner Christine, easygoing waiter Michael, and most inexplicably, a cowboy. Long swathes of taupe material, courtesy set designer Michael Moore, suggest their mountainous environs. Meanwhile, on the speakers, an excerpt from a Car Tours audio guide introduces us to Washington State’s Toutle River area as it now appears—some 25 years post-eruption.
Ablutions completed and morning cigarette smoked, the characters gather at the Toutle diner, which Christine (Rebecca Hart) has reluctantly inherited from her invalid mother. Suddenly and rather startlingly, Mary (Julie Jesneck) bursts into song, announcing that this morning she will forsake her usual granola and yogurt for a delicious biscuit. “I’m not used to singing at breakfast or ever,” she croons bemusedly. This unexpected mealtime serenade offers not the first, but perhaps the most obvious indication that Rothman has some difficulty integrating the various elements in this performance. Mary’s songs, which will later include a number entitled “These Are the Biscuits of My Heartbreak” don’t meaningfully oppose or enliven the dialogue, nor do they mesh well with the cowboy’s ballads, the full-chorus anthems, the balletic interlude, or Becka Vargus’s tap numbers, staccato shuffles and raps meant to represent the mountain’s tremors. Rothman appears invested in working her way through a lengthy checklist of genres and mediums that don’t readily blend—the result is less stimulating than enervating.
Phenomenon is unfailingly sweet and well-intentioned, particularly in its aim to pay tribute to the U.S. Geological Survey scientist David Johnston, the eruption’s first casualty and inspiration for the character of Mark. And the piece includes a playful scene of scone-throwing. But the script and lyrics prove so pedantic as to border on self-parody, and many of the interactions are absurd. (The piece dares propose that a punk rock girl just might find love with a cowboy. Perish the thought!) Certainly scientists may find it difficult to explain why a volcano erupts one day and not another and psychologists may wonder why a musician would commit suicide two days before his first American tour, but theater artists ought to find less puzzling means to translate these conundrums into drama.