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Florida Stage playwright Rosendorf pens ‘Cane’ as part of Florida Cycle series

Based on Robert Mykle’s nonfictional account of the hurricane of 1928, KILLER ‘CANE: The Deadly Hurricane of 1928. Cooper Sure Press, 2002.

David Nail, left, and Gregg Weiner share a scene in ‘Cane,’ which centers on the devastation around Lake Okeechobee during the 1928 hurricane. The play is part of Florida Stage’s state-centered series, Florida Cycle.

Trenell Mooring and David Nail star in ‘Cane,’ which retells the story of the 1928 hurricane that burst the mud dike around Lake Okeechobee and killed 2,500 people.

By Jan Sjostrom

Daily News Arts Editor

Cane started nearly three years ago with a glass of chardonnay over dinner. During that amiable meal, Patrick Painter, who works for the City of West Palm Beach’s public utilities department, told Louis Tyrrell, Florida Stage’s producing director, that the city had just dodged a bullet when a historic drought ended with the onset of rain. Until the long-awaited showers arrived, water managers estimated that the city had only a 21-day supply of water left.

The story stuck with Tyrrell. It seemed to him an ideal jumping-off point for his planned Florida Cycle: a series of plays fostered by the company that focus on Florida stories.

He proposed the idea of writing a play about Florida’s precarious and often ambiguous relationship with water to Andrew Rosendorf, Florida Stage’s playwright in residence.

Rosendorf, a 29-year-old Virginia transplant, knew little about the delicate interplay among Lake Okeechobee, the Everglades and the weather that undergirds Florida’s water supply.

“I thought of the Everglades as a national park,” he said.

Still, “here’s Lou, the producing director of a major regional theater, asking me to write a play,” Rosendorf said in his notes for the play’s program. “So I said what anybody would say. ‘Yes.’ ”

He set to work and produced Cane, which opened the theater’s first season Friday at its new home at the Kravis Center’s Rinker Playhouse.

The show is Rosendorf’s first full-length play to be professionally produced. He started his career at Florida Stage as an intern in the 2003-04 season. Two years ago, after completing a master’s degree in playwriting at The New School for Drama in New York, he became the company’s playwright in residence.

Tyrrell said he chose Rosendorf because of his history with the company, “his keen eye and ear for character,” and his fearless use of visual as well as verbal storytelling.

History Lessons

To prepare himself to write, Rosendorf plunged into research. He paid two visits to Lake Okeechobee to soak up the environs of Belle Glade, where the play is set.

He learned about the 1926 hurricane, which burst the mud dike around the lake and killed 400 people, the penny-pinching repairs that followed, and the devastating hurricane of 1928, which massacred 2,500 people when the dike again failed. The tragedy led to the construction of the Herbert Hoover Dike, which controlled the water flow and allowed the development of Palm Beach County.

“Then I had to figure out how to write a play about this,” he said. “A play has to be about people and a human story. Whatever issues there are have to come out of the human story.”

He wrapped his play around three families whose story unfolds in two acts — the first set just before the 1928 hurricane and the second in the present. The tale involves land, water shortages, storms — and murder.

In January, the complexities of connecting the two acts inspired this despairing blog entry on the company website: “I’ve literally been feeling ill over this. Is my play going to be derailed? Or is there a solution I haven’t thought of yet?”

Of course, there was, although we won’t reveal it.

Florida State of Mind

Creating a play from scratch about an important issue is just one way the Florida Cycle might be approached, Tyrrell said. Other avenues might include adapting a Florida author’s book for the stage or producing an existing play based on a Florida story, such as last season’s When the Sun Shone Brighter.

Tyrrell envisions producing at least one play each season that tells a universal story from a Florida perspective. Ultimately, he hopes to build up a cannon of about 20 works.

After all, if your name is Florida Stage and your job is developing new plays, “it makes all the sense in the world,” he said.

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