On September 8, 1900, the greatest natural disaster in American history hit Galveston in the form of a Category IV hurricane. The 130-mile-an-hour winder and the 15-foot waves killed more than 8,000 people and all but wiped the vacation paradise off the map. In the wake of the tragedy, Merline and Maseo, the central characters of Houston-based poet-playwright Thomas Meloncon's strange melodrama The Laws of Storms, must face up to the past and all the sorrows stirred up in its deep, dark waters. But as played out on James Thomas's impressive Victorian set at Main Street Theater, the dramatic potential in this story happened long before Meloncon's narrative begins.
In the first place, the storm blows over before the action starts. We don't meet the couple until early November, some two months after the tempest died down. The dead are still rotting in the streets. Food and water are passed out in care packages by the Red Cross. And things are especially hard on the city's black citizens, who are caravanned off to work grave duty and shot on sight if caught with looted property. But none of this seems to have much impact on Maseo (Wayne DeHart) and Merline (Melita Hawkins), who are getting along pretty well, all things considered. Sure, he lost a handful of his rent houses to the storm, but the only thing that really seems to be bugging the grumpy old man is the fact that his young and pretty wife spent the night of the storm trapped with her half-brother in his hotel room.
There is something a bit worrisome in the way Rayford Lee (Timothy Eric Dickson) carries on about his little sister. Every time he comes calling at Maseo's screen door, he seems unnaturally thrilled to see the girlish woman. And Merline breaks into a beaming grin each time her brother strides across the dining room floor on his long, muscular young legs. Given the fact that these two young folk are not yet 30, while Maseo is in his seventies, well, it's understandable that the old coot gets his knickers in a twist every time Rayford Lee begs a kiss off his tender sis.
The Laws of Storms
Main Street Theater, 2540 Times Boulevard
Through October 13; 713-524-6706. $20-$30
It turns out that Rayford Lee is the only fellow in this odd tale with a real problem. He's been ratting around the city, bagging treasures he's found on the street. He claims his duffel bag full of silver and "imported" lace will be his ticket to a brighter future, but throughout the story we hear gunshots in the background leveled at other men trying to pull off the same scheme. Everyone warns the stubborn man to "turn that stuff in," but he's not hearing any of it. We know real trouble is imminent when a mysterious stranger in a spotless white suit shows up in Merline's dining room to stare at everyone with what are meant to be soul-piercing eyes. Certainly Vincent Victoria does his best to make the bizarre character of Leonard credible. But the biggest mystery of all is why Merline lets the bug-eyed stranger with the creepy stare into her house in the first place.
Of course, whether Rayford Lee turns in a bag of looted goods isn't much of a conflict to hang a story on. Thus Meloncon attempts to up the ante by having his characters sit down and tell several back stories that are intended to make all the non-action somehow more meaningful. We hear all about how half-siblings Merline and Rayford Lee didn't even meet until they were young adolescents. Turns out their father traveled between Beaumont and Galveston, courting both their mothers. Serendipity brought them together, and for a brief while they slept under the same roof, in the same bed, without even knowing they were related. Teenagers being teenagers, "unnatural" feelings developed between Merline and Rayford Lee. By the time they found out the true nature of their relationship, friendly attachments had been established.
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We also get to hear the long tale of how old man Maseo got hooked up with Merline, who's 40 years his junior. Another story concerns how Maseo, the son of an ex-slave, put together his small fortune in property.
These stories might be pertinent to the current conflict, but they can't conjure drama out of characters who seem to have made up their minds long before we meet them. Rayford Lee wants Merline, but it's clear from the start that Merline isn't leaving her husband, old as he might be, for her half-brother. The conflict is Rayford Lee's alone, and all we get to see of him are his rages against the powers that be. The talented Dickson works hard to make Rayford Lee's troubles meaningful. He slams doors, kicks trash and brandishes his fist with muscular brio. But none of this can call up a fully wrought character out of Meloncon's thin writing.
In fact, all the performers are stymied by the writing. Maseo, in particular, is never more than a crotchety, shuffling old man, despite the formidable talents of veteran actor DeHart. And Manning Mpinduzi-Mott's stiff direction has everyone either sitting about the table or standing in unnatural semicircles.
"Storms change everything they touch That's one of the laws of storms," say the characters in Meloncon's play. Unfortunately, judging by this play, the Galveston hurricane doesn't seem to have had much effect at all.