Early on in The Wilting Point, journalist Mina Melo (Beverlix Jean-Baptiste) asks, “What’s the story?” She is begrudgingly returning to the Sangre de Cristo valley in Southern Colorado to adapt her hit podcast, Clime, into a series for a streaming service run by the award-hungry producer Finley Grey (Judy Lewis). While Melo does find her story, the play’s audience might leave still asking that question.
Written by DC playwright Graziella Jackson, The Wilting Point was developed out of the Keegan Theatre’s new-play initiative, the Boiler Room Series. Its world premiere production runs at the theater through April 30, directed by Danielle A. Drakes.
While reporting, Melo becomes enmeshed in the lives of Tuca (Sally Ann Flores), her laconic son, Udo (Gabriel Alejandro), and his daughter, River (Sophia Colón Roosevelt). Tuca is the elected leader of an acequia, a centuries-old community waterway used to irrigate local farms. Her family has held the post for generations. Now, increasingly dire water shortages threaten their way of life, causing River to speak out against the forces conspiring against them. Jackson’s writing shines brightest in their family dynamics and connections to the natural world, aided by Flores’ warm, grounded performance.
The script bursts with big, urgent ideas: the existential threat of climate change, particularly on Indigenous and other communities of Color; multigenerational support and legacies; post-traumatic stress disorder; economic and ecological injustices; corporate greed; and the altering media landscape. Unfortunately, many are little more than narrative feints. This is most notable in the form of Maximillian Wasser (Silas Gordon Brigham), a tech bro combining the post-humanist babble of Elon Musk with the fire-and-brimstone rhetoric of Jonathan Edwards. Seemingly the play’s main antagonist, the character all but dissolves by the second act, as does his lackey, Grey. There are also unsatisfied questions surrounding Udo and two possible murders, one while he served in Syria and another closer to home. Even the circumstances of Melo’s return and relationship to the community remain unclear.
Drakes directs the play with a gentle, though at times desultory, pace. Scenes amble toward their conclusions, uniformly marked by an aggressive light switch (Alberto Segarra designed lights). Crossed arms and momentarily raised voices suffice for conflict. Long scene changes don’t help, as actors shuffle furniture and cross all the way upstage to exit on Matthew J. Keenan’s sparse set, a Brutalist-inspired array of concrete gray levels topped by a matching strip of wall. Zavier Augustus Lee Taylor effectively, if maximally, paints the set with projections of everything from night skies and red rock buttes to colorful swirling digital patterns reminiscent of Windows Media Player visualizations.
There are a few standout moments: a lone Tuca solacing herself with a late-night cigarette while singing “Moon River” in Spanish; Udo finding his voice to support River; the young activist’s streamed, second-act speech imploring her online audience—and IRL one, too—to take action against climate change now.
The Wilting Point is the first play in Jackson’s ecological tetralogy, The Elements Plays. It’s an ambitious and exciting project, particularly to put on stage as the theater industry itself grapples with its environmental footprint of single-use sets and costumes. Keegan will workshop the remaining three plays in 2023. The Wilting Point’s story may be muddled, but its pressing message is crystal clear.
Running Time: Two hours plus one 15-minute intermission.
The Wilting Point plays through April 30, 2023, at the Keegan Theatre – 1742 Church Street, NW, Washington DC. For tickets (full price, $55; students, under 25, and over 62, $45), call the box office at (202) 265-3767 or go online.
The credits for The Wilting Point are online here (scroll down).
COVID Safety: Masks are optional but encouraged. For the Keegan Theatre’s complete policies and procedures around keeping patrons, artists, and staff safe and healthy, visit their Health & Safety page.