Arguably one of the greatest cavers to ever live, Floyd Collins’ may have never been known were it not for his life-ending catastrophe in Kentucky’s Great Sand Cave in 1925. Sparking North America’s first media frenzy, Collins’ tragedy occurred at a point of quick progress in the technologically advancing world. When songwriter and composer Adam Guettel read a brief synopsis of the true story in an edition of Reader’s Digest, the concept stuck with him, not leaving him alone until he wrote it down.
Floyd Collins, written by Tina Landau, made its debut in 1994, moving to Off-Broadway in 1996, and opened this month at Atlantic Beach Experimental Theatre’s (ABET) venue, Adele Grage Cultural Center, on Sept. 8. Originally running for only 25 performances, this introspective, cathartic piece of theater has received much critical acclaim in the past few years. Floyd Collins is the bluegrassy musical tale of a man (Floyd) who dreams of opening a tourist attraction in a Kentucky cave. The world turns upside down on him when he’s trapped in the cave, 200 feet underground. Alone, he struggles to maintain his sanity while simultaneously fighting to stay alive. Replete with moving American music and metaphysical moments, Floyd Collins is a show that leaves you awestruck in your seat long after the last curtain call.
The show takes you on a journey: Floyd’s physical adventure to the bottom of the cave, the emotional odyssey he experiences once he’s trapped under a rock, as well as the social commentary on the role of media in 1925. Reporters and voyeurs from across the nation descend on this little Kentucky town, ratcheting the hysteria up while controlling the population’s attention for shock value. It’s a haunting, harrowing experience, heightened by internal parallels that anyone can relate to: loneliness, longing, uncontrollable circumstances and, understandably, fate. Floyd begins this excursion for his family: He believes this attraction would draw fiscal prosperity for the town and by proxy, his family, struggling in the impoverished Midwest.
ABET, a nonprofit theater company in Atlantic Beach, is forging ahead into its 25th year. This coastal gem focuses on drawing attention to underdone, unknown, but deserving shows, and this is one you should not miss. It’s heartbreaking. It’s emotional. The music is simply fantastic. The cast has an abundance of Northeast Florida’s finest talent. Leading the charge is Josh Waller, a Jacksonville native who could sing the text of a calculus book with life-changing results for the audience. He is an absolute gift to the Jacksonville theater scene, and to witness him in this role is sure to be memorable. Josh doesn’t leave the stage often, and he says that’s a challenge in the best way. “It’s stretching me in new ways. This show doesn’t try to be anything other than what it is,” Waller explained. Rounding out the cast are Michael Yarick, Maya Adkins, Charly Adams, Jacob Schuman, Rob Banks, Brian Johnson, Eric Yarham, Del Austin and Kyle Geary. Bill Ratliff is playing the role of Floyd’s father, which is nostalgic for both Waller and Ratliff, who last played a father/son duo eight years ago in Batboy. Erin Barnes, Peter Michael Mosely and Philip Pan provide live musical accompaniment. The combination of this ensemble is exciting; some of Northeast Florida’s most talented musicians combined their gifts for this complex score.
Directed by Eric DeCiccio, with music direction by Aaron DeCiccio, this fierce husband/wife team last worked together this summer on FSCJ’s West Side Story.