Those of us living in Southwest Pennsylvania are surrounded by what Josh Fox has dubbed “Gasland.” Chances are, if you live in or around Pittsburgh, there is a hydraulic fracturing site within twenty miles of your home (don’t believe me? Check out this map). All that drilling is keeping the region’s unemployment rate and energy costs low – but at what cost?
That’s the question at the heart of Paul Kruse’s heartfelt and ambitious new play Driftless. The story centers on a young couple, Sierra (Siovhan Christensen) and Collin (Alec Silberblatt), who have recently moved into a new home built within spitting distance of a fracking site. Collin is a blue collar yinzer who works for one of the drilling companies; Sierra is – like her mother, Mary Anne (Tammy Tsai) – a nurse. Collin is dismissive of environmental concerns around fracking: there might be some truth to the claims made in Fox’s documentary, he concedes, but any environmental impacts are due to carelessness – his company does things right. But when Sierra suffers a miscarriage, she begins to harbor doubt about the cleanliness of their water, and what she learns from having their water sent for testing tears their family apart.
Hopscotching temporally between past, present, and future, and geographically between southwestern Pennsylvania and the sands of Minnesota, the play connects dots between the geological events that left extractable resources in various parts of the world and the environmental and health impacts that result from our exploitation of those resources, both now and in the past. Sierra’s father, Randall (Ken Bolden), is an ex-coal miner who suffered from black lung disease; Bolden also plays James Schneider, a professor suffering from respiratory problems as a result of frack sand harvesting near his home in Minnesota. The two houses showcased in the play exemplify the choices and hazards posed to homeowners who discover that they’re sitting atop a valuable resource, as in both cases mining and drilling are both sources of income and disease. If we consider the Earth as our “home,” the play’s focus on the ways in which our collective thirst for energy renders the characters’ homes unlivable makes for a potent analogy.
Kruse also uses analogy to prompt reflection on our economic addiction to fossil fuels. Collin is a recovering heroin addict, and his efforts to remain clean highlight the challenges we’d collectively face in weaning our economy and society from fossil fuel consumption.
At times the writing feels heavy-handed, as when, in the second act, Bolden and Tsai, playing St. Peter and St. Barbara, hammer us with facts about addiction and the process of fracking. And the plot has some loose ends: specifically, Kruse seems to have lost interest in the family story of the priest (Trevor Butler) when we return for the second act.
The play calls for nice touches of magic realism, which director Adil Mansoor handles with flair, with the help of sound and movement designer slowdanger and a captivating lighting design by Kathryn A. Devlin. Scene designer Michelle Carello rightly makes water a primary element of the set: working faucets in the two kitchens call attention to the centrality of water to the functioning of our homes and lives, and make present for us what is at stake when the purity of our water is threatened.