note: entire contents copyright 2012 by Sheila Barth
On January 30, 1925, when 37-year-old cave explorer-spelunker (William) Floyd Collins of Kentucky decided to find a new passageway or link to the popular Mammoth and Crystal caves or create his own, all-new tourist attraction on his off-the-beaten path property, he ventured deeper into the earth, through untrod, narrow passageways that nobody else dared to attempt.
Deliriously happy when he found his dream cave that would earn him a fortune, Collins became trapped en route back, 150 feet into the cave entrance, 55 feet below the surface. A 27-pound limestone rock fell on his leg, wedging him in a narrow space, in a twisted position. Thus begins Collins’ sad saga. His two-week plight and rescue attempts created unheard-of media exploitation and a carnival atmosphere, sending shock waves ‘round the world. At the time, newspapers were the primary mode of communication, and radio pioneers were just beginning to broadcast, making Collins their breaking news of the day.
Collins achieved the notoriety and hoopla he sought - but not the way he chose. Rescue attempts were futile, and he died, trapped, alone, in the dark. It took more than two months to recover his body.
Collins’ story lay buried for years. He remained quietly remembered as a national folk hero and called “America’s Greatest Cave Explorer”. His story later caught the attention of Adam Guettel, grandson of Richard Rodgers, who composed music and lyrics for Tina Landau’s book-turned-play, “Floyd Collins”. Landau also wrote additional lyrics. The play premiered in 1994 and continues to intrigue audiences today, including theatergoers who recently attended Moonbox Productions’ stirring version at the Boston Center for the Arts (BCA) Plaza Theatre in Boston’s South End.
Moonbox director Allison Choat was determined to make the play realistic, so, like Guettel, she went underground, to the caves. Together, they created a passionate, memorable production.
Although the first act moves slowly, the second act gains momentum.
Guettel’s music, dramatically performed by pianist-director Dan Rodriguez and his seven fine musicians, runs the gamut from blue grass to ballad and more. The play is an operetta, highlighting Collins’ enthusiasm and luck at finding the hidden new cave, his painful entrapment, his family’s chagrin, the media frenzy, locals’ moments of fame, battles between the family and engineering rescue teams,and Collins’ demise. Sound designer Dan Costello’s cave-ins, crashes, shaft-borings, and carnival atmosphere sharply pierces the cave’s eerie darkness and peacefulness.
Phil Tayler as Floyd captures every emotion as his hope hangs on, by a thread. A few times, in flashbacks, dreams and hallucinations, Floyd wriggles free from his tight tomb, dancing, running through fields to the river with his siblings Nellie (Teresa Winner Blume) and Homer (Mark Linehan). Rachel Bertone’s realistic choreography graces the small, minimalist set.
Tayler, Blume and Linehan are marvelous throughout, especially when Nellie and Homer individually battle engineering mogul H.T. Carmichael (Robert D. Murphy), and when razzle-dazzle filmmaker Cliff Roney (Dave Carney) lures well-dressed, ambitious Homer into making a movie about Floyd while the caver is still trapped. The family becomes more unglued as time passes and rescue efforts appear futile. The ending is jarring. More shocking is what the play doesn’t reveal - the fate of the cave and Collins’ corpse.
Matthew Zahnzinger shines as news reporter William Burke “Skeets” Miller, who’s small, like a mosquito, and fits easily into the tunnel, where he reaches, interviews and tries to rescue Floyd. The real Miller won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the story.
This talented cast is rounded out by Jacob Sherburne as Kentuckian Jewel Estes (he also designed the set); Anne Colpitts as Floyd’s caring stepmother, Jane; Phil Thompson as Floyd’s dad, Lee; Rick Sherburne as neighbor Bee Doyle; Phillip Isaac Berman as neighbor Ed Bishop; and Dave Carney, Bob De Vivo and Alex Grover, portraying reporters and cameo characters.