- Often a real-life event can inspire a given piece of literature.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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 www.milwaukeechambertheatre.com.