Didn’t it rain, children, didn’t it rain!

Wright State presents “1913: The Great Dayton Flood”

 By Jacqui Theobald
photo: Cyndii Johson and Donnella Barbour [center] bring the first act to a close in “1913: The Great Dayton Flood”

By the time you’ve experienced Dayton’s own true story brought to new life at Wright State University, you’ll feel you are in 1913. WSU re-creates Dayton’s significant historic event with the award-winning original play, “1913: The Great Dayton Flood,” and you’ve been through the water, survived gas explosions and fire, felt fear and sorrow and joy and laughed at a traveling vaudeville troupe performing at the Victoria Theatre.

Now, the play has its own history. Based on the late Allan W. Eckert’s Pulitzer nominated book “Time of Terror: the Great Dayton Flood,” the play was created in 1995 by Stuart McDowell, Chair and Artistic Director of the Department of Theatre, Dance and Motion Pictures at WSU, and then-student Timothy J. Nevits, and is once more directed by McDowell with Nevits assisting. The original won a record number of awards from the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival in 1997. Then it came home to Dayton’s Victoria Theatre and played to four sell-out crowds, including some flood survivors.

McDowell said, “The student actors, then and now, went crazy, just ate up playing real people they had met or seen in the archives. If we hadn’t begun in the mid-nineties we never could have found actual survivors still alive who had been old enough to remember. They came to us then, eager to share their stories, their lives.”

The 2013 show opens with a flowing, choreographed description of forces of nature colliding in a massive, river-swelling rain that just couldn’t stop. Actors move as cold fronts! It works. With many creative touches, WSU makes full use of 21 actors playing 150 Daytonians of many ages and races and stories. The quotes are real, the situations accurately depicted and the courage and generosity of people connected by a common need is heroic.

Playgoers see Lawrence Dunford inhabiting W.G. Sloan, reluctant church-goer and avid baseball pitcher, who eventually surprises himself by saving hundreds in a purloined rowboat including (his lines) “a white woman who I bet had never sat next to a Negro before.” Local research provided new material from survivors or descendants in the African American community with as many heroes and stories as in the more fully documented white community.

Contrasting with unsung citizens is Sean Jones, authoratively playing John H. Patterson who anticipated the dangers of the rain and commandeered the facilities of his company, National Cash Register, to feed, house and clothe refugees as well as to make scores of rowboats for rescue. It didn’t hurt that his contribution somehow must have made a lurking anti-trust charge disappear.

Other heroes: librarian Minnie Althoff, determined to save “her” books, and Dayton’s history, played with determination by Kelsey Pohl and Caroline Gruber sashaying as Lib Hedges, infamous Madame of Pearl Street, generous to flood relief.

A bit of humor comes from a touring company playing at the Victoria and stranded there by high water. WSU enjoys hamming up that (George M.) Cohan & Harris’ production, although they had a collateral death, too, as a stage hand collapsed later, running for the train.

Tyler Simms is Edward Hanley, wrongly deciding not to turn off the city’s gas, then agonized by explosions and fires.

The marvel of the production is that the vignettes flow smoothly and the actors’ portrayals of different people are so well done that the audience can follow the period story. The ensemble work is excellent.

That Wright State’s program includes theatre, dance and motion picture is apparent. Actors drown with a certain balletic quality. Many scenes end in a film-like stop action, often seen in graphic silhouette. Familiar old hymns sung a cappella were arranged by Robert Stockton of the WSU Music Department.

Narrations recorded for the original presentation were graciously re-permitted by Dayton’s own Martin Sheen and Ruby Dee for herself and her late husband, actor Ossie Davis, the man with the resonant bass voice.

New this year and adding to the richness of atmosphere and sophistication is original music, played on original instruments created and performed by Michael and Sandy Bashaw. The soundscape supports the voice-overs at just the right level.

The sets have their own history. The originals, stored in a warehouse downtown, were reluctantly destroyed when baseball came to Fifth Third Field on First Street and rents escalated.

WSU’s Set Designer Pam Knauert Lavarnway created a flexible series of platform stages that can be shifted to serve as rooftops and rafts, homes and offices, and when pulled apart create the antagonist river.

The now-destroyed beautiful old library in Cooper Park is seen in a film projection. Other 1913-era photographs and movies serve as backdrop information, adding to the reality. As nine-year-old Donnella Barbour, of Trotwood-Madison Middle School, in her first (of many, she hopes) stage appearances whispered during a rehearsal break, “I didn’t even know Dayton had a flood.”

With so many art forms seamlessly working together, “1913:The Great Dayton Flood” hardly needs more. But it brings another gift; a living history for those unfamiliar with the area’s past.

As college students became history sleuths, led by educator-director McDowell, so the audience becomes survivors of nature’s power, touched by courage and determination.

Dayton had support from President Wilson. It saw the creation of the Miami Conservancy District devising the five dam system, a model of engineering skill and effectiveness still viable today. The play brings 1913 right up to 2013.

Shall we gather at the river?

Wright State University presents “1913: The Great Dayton Flood” on Jan. 30 and 31 and Feb. 1, 2, 7, 8, 9 and 10 at 7pm. For show times and ticket information, call 937.775.2500.

Reach DCP theatre critic Jacqui Theobald at JacquiTheobald@DaytonCityPaper.com. 

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Reach DCP theatre critic Jacqui Theobald at JacquiTheobald@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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