“Purple Heart City” Shines Spotlight On North County’s Hidden Shame

The Tesseract Theatre Company’s “Purple Heart City” is a wonderful example of the importance of supporting new theatrical works.

Featuring heartfelt and believable performances, this timely and personal story about the toxic waste in North St. Louis County delves into the ongoing human drama many residents endure living on what is, essentially, a dirty bomb.

Radioactive waste from the Manhattan Project and nuclear weapons production was dumped illegally at the West Lake/Bridgeton landfill in the 1970s. In 1990, the Environmental Protection Agency placed it on the Superfund National Priorities List for clean-up. The leached barium sulfate is a byproduct of Mallinckrodt Chemical Works’ uranium enrichment program.

Written by Tesseract Artistic Director Taylor Gruenloh, a North County native, and directed by Managing Director Brittanie Gunn, “Purple Heart City” is an intricate look at a dysfunctional family coming together at a time of crisis.

Its title speaks to a civic designation awarded to cities who have a percentage of citizens who have earned Purple Hearts in military duty, or who have fallen victim to international terrorists.

Daniel (Kelvin Urday) is a young man who had suddenly left his pregnant girlfriend Sarah (Rachel Bailey) without even so much as a goodbye to his mother, Margaret (Helen Pancella). He has returned home 18 months later to try to put his life back together.

His unforgiving mother doesn’t trust him and his ex-girlfriend won’t let him see their daughter. His mother’s neighbor Ashley (Ashley Netzhammer) and his high school classmate, attorney Curtis (Darrious Varner) both think he’s a selfish jerk.

The tight script references that Ashley’s grandfather is a war veteran who doesn’t have long to live. Margaret is showing signs of being ill herself but stubbornly refuses to go to a doctor. These developments weigh heavily on Ashley, yet fuel her activism.

Daniel, Ashley and Sarah slowly form new bonds as they help Margaret, whose problems may be related to the double threat of chemically contaminated Coldwater Creek and the nuclear waste dumped in the West Lake/Bridgeton landfill, just a thousand yards from a smoldering underground fire.

Over the years, EPA officials had repeatedly told residents that there is little danger, but common sense indicated otherwise. (A victory occurred Feb. 1 when the EPA admitted it’s not safe to keep the waste in the ground at the West Lake/Bridgeton Landfill and recommended moving it.)

The rates of cancer, leukemia, multiple sclerosis and possibly other disorders like Parkinson’s Disease are all found well above the national average along the Coldwater Creek floodplains. One might assume that a smoldering trash fire in proximity to several tons of nuclear waste is never a good mix.

Urday is terrific as Daniel, projecting his shame as well as his desire to make things right. Always fun to watch, Urday seems to keenly understand the desperation one can feel when living in a town like Florissant or Black Jack, which aren’t horrible places, but they can sometimes feel very stagnant.

Growing up in that area myself, I knew many folks exactly like Daniel and his mother. Pancella was spot on as a hard-working widow who did the best she could to raise her son and maintain the house all on her own. You may know someone exactly like her.

Netzhammer stole the show as the activist neighbor who never stops fighting for what she believes in, displaying tenderness, anger, courage and an extensive vocabulary of profanity–all of the traits North County folks wish were enough when it comes to taking on Washington. She even has the audacity to use an event that features her ailing grandfather as an excuse for organizing a peaceful demonstration.

Varner captures the essence of a modern North County man, working too hard for too little, tired of failure and yet resigned to it. His Curtis is more like Daniel than he realizes.

Rachel Bailey reminded me of former girlfriends either my buddies or myself once had. If you’ve lived in North County, especially near the creek or the Bridgeton landfills, you’ll find each of these actors hauntingly familiar.

Taylor Gruenloh and I never knew each other before I starting covering the St. Louis theatre scene, but we grew up not very far apart. I regularly walked the banks of Coldwater Creek, looking for arrowheads, old coins, jewelry and such. I played softball at the Bridgeton Municipal Athletic Complex for several years in high school and college.

While I enjoyed my childhood, looking back now I find myself at a loss for words. How do you explain cancer in our family as a mere coincidence, a lousy roll of the genetic dice? How do you explain the number of people I know who are afflicted with Multiple Sclerosis or, in my case, Parkinson’s Disease?

I’m bitterly disappointed in the poor decisions of those corporations who pumped a cocktail of chemicals into the creek, with apparently little consideration of the wildlife and people of the region.

It wasn’t until I was a bit older and perhaps a bit wiser that I started to get a sense of the general malaise that hangs like a fog bank over my old neighborhoods. Until the news broke a few years ago, I don’t think people really knew the story, but maybe have suspected something.

Now their homes aren’t worth what they paid for them. They’ll work two jobs to make mortgage payments on a house they can’t sell, but like Margaret, they’ll try to stick to their lifestyle rather than fight two battles they can’t win — government and disease.

Gruenloh and Gunn show that North County residents make the best of what they can because for many there is simply no alternative. They point out that what’s happened to North County is not only inhumane, it’s evil.

With this emotional and heartbreaking show, the cast, playwright and director bring this situation to light. I hope others will appreciate it as much as I do.

“Purple Heart City” runs March 16 – 25 at the  .Zack Theater. For more information, visit www.tesseracttheatre.org


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