Natural disasters are ripe material for storytellers. Typically a fictional account is used, allowing the dramatist maximum ability to shape the disaster into a way that best propels the story forward. Very rarely, it seems, does a natural disaster do the story structure "properly".
The May 14th 2011 Slave Lake fire was devastating. 30% of a town (of 7,000!) was destroyed. A province-wide fireban, the first ever, was the immediate result. Homes and businesses destroyed...and then in a final irony days afterwards the town was flooded by heavy rains, culminating in a visit from the newly crowned Prince William and his lovely bride: Pippa's sister. Did the story, however tragic, suit itself well to storytelling?
Probably not, but you'd never know it from the garbled mess that was The Day it Rained Fire.
Mike and Jay over at Redlettermedia would have loved watching this: it touches on all the problems they like to point out in movies. They key issue was one of tone. The Slave Lake fire was devastating. Firemen put their lives on the line in scenarios that experienced urban fire chiefs later declared were too risky and they would have been pulled out. Families rushed on 10 minutes notice to empty their homes of belongings, and then the two weeks of agony forced to either here from scuttlebutt or discern from news footage whether or not their house survived. There was quite possibly some very powerful scenes to be created from this. Hell, the name of the play is "The Day It Rained Fire"! This certainly implies that we as an audience are about to be treated to life in the inferno.
So instead, we see a husband get mad at his wife for using Facebook, and a wife mad at her husband for helping shingle a roof instead of panic in the living room. We see a half-hearted duel of morality of firefighting between a government official with Sustainable Resources and the embodiment of the fire. A couple of firemen crack jokes. Light-hearted romps full of easy-listening jokes, all delivered with the emotional intensity of a nine year old thanking his grandma at Mom's behest for the Xbox game when he only owns a Wii. I don't mean to say the acting is terrible in this or anything, but the acting in this is terrible. There is a single decent performance from the entire cast. When you have ham-fisted actors delivering funny lines, what ends up occurring is a giant mess when the intent was supposed to be (one would assume) sad gravitas.
The play actually opens on a weak note: the co-author is also the narrator, and he tells the story in such a jabbering disjointed tale that its hard to keep up with what's happening. In what's going to become a running theme in this work, we are told about exciting and dramatic events rather than shown them. Even when we are shown things (like one of the fire trucks getting stuck and then consumed by flames the night before everything went to hell), the narrator has to tell us about them first. No, no, build up the tension. The dry facts of the fire are recanted, and compared to a Kelowna fire that was smaller and much less in the impact of Edmontonians.
When the fire was having a "debate" with the Sustainable Resources official, I almost walked out of this one. I see from the Edmonton SUN's review that others already did, so I guess I wouldn't be sending much more of a message than that. The lines were corny, they were delivered without proper inflection, and served no purpose to the plot. If they did have to have the "communicate with fire" bit, couldn't they have used it a few other places as we saw people battling the flames? No, actually, they couldn't: only one such scene existed. Despite being badly acted, it at the very least intensified the drama a bit by showing us that volunteer firefighters didn't have anything beyond a superficial knowledge of wildfires, and this lack of knowledge left them helpless.
We actually heard a hair-raising story: firefighters placing sprinklers along Primary Highway 088 were suddenly surrounded when a crown fire swept across the highway, surrounding them in flame with burning branches collapsing upon them. The firefighters were forced to crawl through a ditch and find air pockets created when the searing heat burned the area unevenly and created convection currents and pockets of fresh air. Sounds intense, right? Well you might as well have been in the audience: this scene, like so many others, was told to us by the impacted people after the fact. Wouldn't that have been scary and impressive to witness live on stage? I sure think so, even if the play couldn't do much for effects besides red lighting and tree branches with glowsticks duct taped to them thrown from stage left.
A single scene, right at the end, got the spirit of the material right: a couple returning two weeks later to find they couldn't even recognize their old neighbourhood: fighting about the pain of rebuilding..."it's just things, we can replace those." "No we can't. The drawing Ethan did of you in Grade One that we had framed. The painting you bought on the beach on our honeymoon, the statue my aunt gave us for our anniversary. I don't want new ones. I want the old ones. I want my ones."...and the sense of loss for being unable to recognize your own home. The wife ends up walking through debris with her eyes closed, speaking out loud as she visualizes what her long-burnt home used to look like, and what used to be in there. She seemed to be the only one who could make us FEEL what was felt.
Look I know a woman who lives in Slave Lake: her house (but not her garage!) was still standing on May 16th, most of her neighbour's weren't. One of my real life friends has as one of his Facebook friends (real life friend too, for all I know) a firefighter from Slave Lake who actually has photos of him and his crew during the horrible battle to save their town...a battle they ultimately lost at great emotional cost. There are real people up there with real stories and real heartache and real sacrifice. The narrator was in tears at the end, and if you just let yourself look at photos and visualize what people during the crisis were going through you can really feel something.
What you can't feel for is the lazy acting (the doctor whose floorboard were on fire was particularly brutal, the hackneyed writing, the bad 80s sitcom husband and wife bickering, the sloppy tone, and the unimaginative pacing which fails to let the horror of the acutal crisis come alive on stage. You're really better off giving $20 to the Red Cross for the Slave Lake relief effort at this point.
Final word: This play about an out of control fire is no Backdraft. Instead, it seems to be a Firstdraft.