CHICAGO — The BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 sticks in the national memory like a bad but catchy song. We recall with ease, and reluctance, the Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling rig as it sank into the gulf. We remember the video images of the Macondo deep-sea well as it spewed about 50,000 barrels of crude oil a day into southern Louisiana’s fragile ecosystem. We remember the giant oil slick burning on the water, blackening the beaches, clogging the marshlands, choking and killing the fish and wildlife.
What we don’t remember, if we ever knew it in the first place, is that the environmental disaster in the gulf also was a human tragedy that claimed 11 lives. The April 20 explosion on the rig killed several of members of the crew in a methane-fueled inferno, even as visiting VIPs (including BP executives) were holding a special dinner on board to congratulate the crew, and themselves, on seven years without any lost work time caused by injuries.
That cruel irony, foreshadowed by the cost-cutting and procedural missteps that may have led to the blowout on the Deepwater Horizon, is the subject of “Spill,” a searing docudrama by Leigh Fondakowski. Directed by the playwright in an urgent, impeccably acted production at Chicago’s TimeLine Theatre, “Spill” is a demand for accountability — and a cry for sanity — in the drill-baby-drill era.
Based on interviews with industry experts, surviving crew members and the families of the victims, along with transcripts from hearings and depositions, “Spill” makes a persuasive case that as currently practiced, offshore oil drilling is so technologically flawed and subject to so many disruptive forces that catastrophic accidents are virtually inevitable.
It must be stopped, the play argues, until the energy industry finds reliable ways to prevent recurrences of what happened in the gulf; when they do happen, the industry must be prepared to respond effectively and expeditiously. (Before it was finally contained, months after the explosion, the Macondo well pumped about 5 million barrels of oil into the sea, crippling a number of the region’s industries for years, destroying animal habitats and hastening erosion along the Gulf Coast.)
But as grim as all these large-scale repercussions of the BP disaster were, “Spill” concentrates on its intimate human dimensions, in particular the elements of hubris (“We got so cocky,” one oil man admits with chagrin) and greed — not just that of BP officials and investors, but also of the oil-rig workers themselves, who were drawn by the fat paychecks that no other industry in bayou country could rival.
In “Spill,” many of these workers sense that something isn’t right about offshore drilling in general and Deepwater Horizon in particular. Even when they have a fatal premonition, as a foreman named Jason Anderson apparently did, they head back out to sea in pursuit of the dollar. “He loved the money,” a mother says of her son, a floorhand named Adam Weise. “He was livin’ the dream.” The American dream, she means — the American nightmare.
It can’t be said that “Spill,” which Fondakowski wrote using techniques that she, her Tectonic Theatre Project colleague Moisés Kaufman and others pioneered on “The Laramie Project” (2000), about the murder of the young gay man Matthew Shepard, has anything like that play’s profound emotional impact. But “Spill” has its own magnetic, galvanizing power; you emerge from the theater shaken and challenged, your drifting consciousness of an issue of grave national concern slapped into focus.
The slapping is briskly accomplished here by Fondakowski’s nuanced, quietly devastating direction; by an almost uniformly excellent cast led by Kelli Simpkins, who also has served as a dramaturg for the play, and David Prete, who brings a silken finesse to several roles, including that of Tony Hayward, the sleekly dissembling BP chief executive; and by André Pluess, the Chicago-based sound-design wizard whose work on “Spill” is a textbook example of how sound effects in the theater can transport us anywhere, including a burning, toppling oil rig 50 miles out to sea.
Baldly topical, more or less explicitly political theater can be heavy-handed, even strident in the wrong hands. But “Spill” — carefully researched, scrupulously fact-checked and brutally fair in its even distribution of blame — is in good hands at TimeLine, which specializes in productions of plays inspired by history, including the recent past. With offshore drilling continuing apace and the Keystone XL oil pipeline looming as a major issue in the 2016 presidential campaign, “Spill” is a timely reminder that, as William Faulkner said, the past is not dead. It’s not even past.
Kevin Nance is a Chicago-based freelance writer.
Spill Through Dec. 19 presented by TimeLine Theatre at Stage 773 in Chicago. 773-281-8463. www.timelinetheatre.com.