Chamber Theatre play explores tragic uncertainties

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The front page of the Kingsport News after the October tragedy that heavily influenced playwright Lori Matthews –Photo: Wikipedia

Budding authors are encouraged to write what they know, but such counsel often leads writers to also explore what they need to understand. For Wisconsin author Lori Matthews, personal catharsis is the seed of the narrative in October, Before I Was Born at the Milwaukee Chamber Theatre.

The play chronicles the aftermath of the massive Oct. 4, 1960, aniline explosion at the Tennessee Eastman Co., in Kingsport, Tenn. At the time the plant produced chemicals, dyes and plastics for Eastman Kodak. 

Aniline, derived from indigo, is a highly flammable chemical precursor to polyurethane. The explosion occurred at 4:45 p.m., right at a shift change. A yellow-brown plume of smoke poured from the plant, followed by a thunderous explosion that “looked like the whole building raised up in the air and then just flew all to pieces,” according to then-Kingsport Fire Chief C.M. Kenner.

Of the 12,000 Kingsport residents who worked at the plant, 16 lost their lives and 300 were injured. Few, if any, Kingsport families were untouched by the tragedy.

For Matthews, a Stoughton resident who was born and raised in Kingsport, the tragedy was very real. Both of her grandfathers, four uncles, her father and mother worked for the company. All of them survived the blast, but the family repeatedly relived the event throughout their lives, including Matthews, even though the tragedy occurred in the year before she was born.

“When my mom, who worked in the company’s personnel office, talked about the evening of the explosion, she remembered arriving at my grandparents’ house, having been unable to locate my dad in the confusion of the fire,” Matthews says. “Family members gathered, and eventually everyone arrived safely, but my father was the last to arrive.” 

October, Before I Was Born deals with the events of that evening through the eyes of three characters — Martha, the family matriarch (UWM Peck School of the Arts professor Raeleen McMillion); her delinquent son Houston (Ken T. Williams) and her pregnant daughter-in-law Anne (April Paul). The ensemble cast faces the same uncertainties in the wake of the tragedy as Matthews’ family, says director C. Michael Wright.

“Even though the play takes place over only 90 continuous minutes, in a subtle, yet profound way, all three characters do change,” Wright says. “They each have their own unique journey during the short time span, but ultimately they find themselves grappling with similar challenges.”

October, Before I Was Born received a staged reading as part of the 2011–12 Montgomery Davis Play Development Series, which offers Wisconsin playwrights opportunities to develop their works. Wright found the play compelling enough to add a full production to Milwaukee Chamber Theatre’s current season.

“I knew immediately that I wanted to be involved with developing the script further, and I knew I wanted to produce and direct it someday,” Wright says. “The dramatic circumstances are certainly highly charged, but Lori’s characters are wonderfully human, funny and fallible and her dialogue is regional, but completely accessible and true.”

Much of the play’s success has to do with the emotions Matthews brought to the writing process, which helped her to deal with the deaths of her parents, even though neither of them were harmed in the blast. James Tate, Matthews’ father, died of congestive heart failure complicated by a heart attack in 2004 after a lengthy period in intensive care, on life support and then in hospice. Removing the ventilator, which led to his death, was traumatic.

“The tension was unbearable, and I was struck by the conversations our family had as we waited — sometimes humorous, sometimes emotional, sometimes hopeful, sometimes desperate,” she says. “I wanted to write about that cluster of emotions, but I knew I didn’t want to approach the topic head on because that would have been too hard to relive.”

The desire continued to grow, and Matthews revisited it again in 2009, as her mother Mae Taylor Tate was dying of colon cancer in the same hospital. Her mother, as one of the Tennessee Eastman’s personnel secretaries, was charged with processing the insurance claims after the explosion and she spoke frequently about the accident. It often came up as the author sat with her ailing mother, night after night. 

“Sitting in the dim light of the hospital room, dreading the thought of losing another parent, I started to write while my mom dozed,” Matthews says. “The Tennessee Eastman incident supplied a substitution for me, an incident that put people in a situation similar to the one we had faced with my dad and were now facing with my mom.”

She continues, “As I sat with her on the night after surgery had confirmed the extent of her tumor, she was awake and talking about the accident. She said, ‘This happened in October, before you were born.’” 

Matthews knew this, having heard the stories many times, but it struck a chord.

October, Before I was Born was the working title and it made me smile because I was using my mom’s phrasing,” she says. “Two years later I had a finished draft of the play, and I couldn’t think of a better name, so it stuck.”

ON STAGE

Milwaukee Chamber Theatre’s production of Lori Matthews’ October, Before I Was Born runs through March 9 at the company’s Studio Theatre. For more, go online to www.chamber-theatre.com.