A New Kind of Fallout grew from an Opera Theater of Pittsburgh commission to celebrate the life and work of Rachel Carson. Because Carson's estate is protective of her biography, the opera's creators instead crafted a fictional story about a woman whose life is changed by Carson's book Silent Spring, which launched the contemporary environmental movement.
Heroine Alice Front lives in suburban Pittsburgh in 1962, the year Silent Spring was published. Newly pregnant, she's driven into activism by Carson's wake-up call about the deadly effects on wildlife of indiscriminate spraying of DDT and other new "wonder chemicals." Complication: Her charming, career-guy husband, Jack, is an ad man for Better Life, a manufacturer of the chemicals that biologist Carson (a Pittsburgh-area native) warned about.
Opera Theater's world-premiere production, directed for SummerFest by Jonathan Eaton, is frequently powerful. The sophisticated, often beautiful score is by noted composer Gilda Lyons, the libretto by Pittsburgh-based playwright Tammy Ryan. Ryan smartly sets the scene of a commercialized, better-living-through chemistry society that's also embracing new causes, including feminism: Ryan has Alice view her burgeoning activism as its own kind of pregnancy.
Indeed, the play's gender politics are especially provocative. Alice's allies are all female: two of the fellow company wives in her book club, along with three choral characters symbolizing The Earth, Science and the Word. Her antagonists are tie-clad men who admonish Jack to "control his wife," and who tend to frame things in terms of warfare — against insects, against Carson. A scene of DDT being sprayed is depicted as a kind of domestic terrorism. A chorus of male voices (who see themselves as protectors) is martial, while powerful female choruses sing in defense of the earth, with pelagic imagery referencing tides and waves.
The accomplished cast includes Lara Lynn Cottrill, as Alice; Christopher Scott, as Jack; and Daphne Alderson as an older Alice who sometimes interacts with the present action.
A weakness of the show is that its central conflict — pesticides, pro or con? — is more issue than story. And although the issue is framed in achingly human terms, its frequent reiteration often stalls the narrative. Still, New Kind of Fallout remains an artful perspective on an important matter.