Dust and people, past and future

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The cast of Dust Can't Kill Me (Photo: Dorothy Carney)
The cast of the musical Dust Can’t Kill Me, part of the Fringe NYC (Photo: Dorothy Carney)

For a thoughtful, creative person coming of age in a time of daunting ecological challenge, how does one make sense of the present moment?

One answer to that question can be found at Theatre 80 St. Marks next Saturday, for the final performance of a new musical, with a book written by Abigail Carney, the summer editor of City Atlas, and music and lyrics by Elliah Heifitz. Both the creators are entering their senior year at Yale, where the production originated on campus earlier this year.

The musical, Dust Can’t Kill Me, which takes its name from a Woody Guthrie tune, has received enthusiastic reviews as part of the New York Fringe Festival. The show looks back to the Dust Bowl era of the 1930’s, when farms and towns across the middle of the US vanished to drought, and tells a fable-like story that resonates with headlines in the present day.

One value of art is to make faceless events personal. Much of the subject of climate change can seem abstract. The numbers are huge, the effects are multiple and have a broad range of possibilities, and the majority of it happens in the future, commencing on an uncertain timetable. Populations involved in climate forecasts move from thousands, to millions, and hardest to grasp, to billions.

But the truth is that things happen to people one by one. The best reporting shows this, but art shows it too. In Dust Can’t Kill Me, a pregnant woman, lost on the prairie and low on food and water, dreams of one day giving her unborn daughter gifts of dozens of dolls, so many dolls that the girl forgets their names each night and in the morning has to name them all over again. A character with hope and imagination becomes a person, and serves as a reminder that the people around us, and people in the future (dealing with whatever hand we deal them) will have hopes too.

A Dust Bowl theme sounds bleak, but here the effect is the opposite. The cast is talented and exuberant, and the music is punchy, hook-filled and richly arranged. For a show about scarcity and misguided dreams, the writing and deft performance of this musical make the opposite case; they expose what we do have in abundance even in challenging times: ability and confidence, when we need it.

Dust Can’t Kill Me plays Saturday, 8/23/14, at 1 PM at Theatre 80 St. Marks in the East Village.