State playwright recalls tragedy's impact in Chamber's 'October'

By JULIE McHALE - TimeOut Theater Critic

February 27, 2014

WAUKESHA - Often a real-life event can inspire a given piece of literature. 

Such was the case with Wisconsin playwright Lori Matthews as the stories of the Tennessee Eastman Company explosion in 1960 was told to her by her relatives, many of whom who were affected by this far-reaching tragedy. “October, Before I Was Born” is a fictionalized work based on those family stories.

Matthews grew up in Kingsport, Tenn., a small town where almost everyone was employed by this chemical company, as were workers in six counties in the eastern part of that state, as well as some in southwest Virginia. 

The Milwaukee Chamber Theatre’s Montgomery Davis Play Development Series was instrumental in getting Matthews’ play produced. The finished product is a moving experience and worth the effort on the part of many.

As the play opens, three characters occupy the modest rural home of Martha: her son Houston, her pregnant daughter-in-law Anne and herself. All are waiting for news of four of their relatives who work for Eastman, including Martha’s husband, Robert, and son Lanny, Anne’s husband.

Tension and anxiety prevail as they try to get clarification from a radio station and a shared phone line. The TV has broken, so is a hopeless means of communication. Fifty years after this event, it’s hard for us to imagine the frustration when we have so many means of instant messaging.

Raeleen McMillion gives a stellar portrayal of Martha, a rock of strength and courage. It is obvious that she has seen her share of tragedies in her life and has learned to be a force of stability and inspiration. Her son Houston is recently returned from a stint in jail and has not made much progress in rehabilitating his life. However, as played by Ken T. Williams, we get a glimpse of his sincerity and compassion as he tries to alleviate the pangs of waiting and make up for some of his past failings. As the play ends, we have some hope for Houston. He’s a bumbler, but a lovable one.

Anne, nicely rendered by April Paul, alternates between propriety and panic. There are some explosions between her and Houston that almost match what is going on around them. Martha and her son also have a few exchanges that mirror their checkered history.

The set design by Charles J. Trieloff II is detailed and authentic, and the costumes by Andrea Bouck reflect the contrast between Anne and the family she married into. Anne had also worked for Eastman in a secretarial position but had recently quit in honor of her pregnancy, thus escaping danger herself, but still very much in the throes of it with possible disastrous news on the horizon.

The Appalachian dialect is impressive and consistent throughout, thanks to McMillian’s background and her skill with dialects. (She is often used as a dialect coach.) Matthews, growing up in Tennessee herself, was very impressed with the replication of “her” language.

In a nonstop, 90-minute production, the tension never abates, and we grow to relate to these characters as we think back of similar events in our own lives where we had to suffer through the agony of waiting and uncertainty. The play ends on an uncertain note, but after all the meltdowns, we leave with the hope that whatever happens, these characters will survive and cope, even beyond their own expectations for themselves. I liked the play, even though it was painful to watch at times. It is ably directed by C. Michael Wright.

“October, Before I was Born” runs through March 9 in the Studio Theatre at the Broadway Theatre Center, 158 N. Broadway, Milwaukee. For show times and tickets, call 414-291-7800 or visit