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In 'Runaway Home' at the Fountain Theatre, hurricane-battered lives hang in the balance

Jeremy J. Kamps' play "Runaway Home,” now premiering at the Fountain Theatre, is set in New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward three years after Hurricane Katrina. The waters may have long receded, but the residents still wander like ghosts through the wreckage of their lives.

Stephanie Kerley Schwartz’s set is heaped with piles of debris, once-cherished items now good for nothing but reminding people of what they've lost. A half-senile local, Mr. Dee (Jeris Poindexter), notes that his wife's prized ”Sunday wig" is a ratty-looking horror lying atop a heap of boxes.

The play's 14-year-old protagonist, Kali (Camille Spirlin), introduces herself to the audience in a lively rhyming soliloquy as she picks through the junk. A precocious kid with a rebellious attitude and a gift for words, Kali is still mourning her grandmother, who died during the hurricane. She and her mother just moved back to their ruined house after three years in Baton Rouge, but they haven’t been getting along. Things are so bad between them that Kali is running away with nothing but her backpack and an old twirling baton.

She isn’t on the road for long when she’s caught stealing from a bodega by its owner, Armando (Armando Rey), an immigrant struggling to earn the money to bring his two daughters from Mexico. Against his better judgment, softhearted Armando takes a liking to the sassy, pugnacious Kali. She talks him into hiring her to sweep the store, and within days he has given her a set of keys.

Kali also gets to know a self-styled anarchist who calls himself Lone Wolf (Brian Tichnell). Lone Wolf is in the area as a volunteer, “gutting and mucking” mold-ravaged houses — as the playwright himself did in New Orleans after Katrina. Although Lone Wolf means well, he eventually proves a bit of a blowhard, derailing a rally organized by Kali’s politically minded neighbor, Shana (Karen Malina White). Still, Kali is impressed. “I’m gonna be an anarchist,” she declares.

“I got a feeling you already are,” Lone Wolf replies.

Lone Wolf also teaches Kali a new way to think about stealing — “liberating” things from the capitalist machine — and she takes it upon herself to liberate a gun. “Just in case my historical moment presents itself,” she ominously explains.

Meanwhile, Kali’s mother, Eunice (Maya Lynne Robinson), sits at home wondering where Kali has gone and whether she should bother to look for her. When Eunice’s no-good, charismatic former fiance, Tat (Leith Burke), tracks her down and tries to sweet-talk her into a reunion, she is briefly tempted — then recovers her maternal instincts and sets out to find her “demon child” instead.

Kamps has a way with dialogue and the Louisiana patois, and under Shirley Jo Finney’s sensitive direction, the actors inhabit their characters with endearing naturalism, even during the expressionistic, poetic interludes. Their conversations are so entertaining that they frequently mask the clanking and grinding of the plot’s gears, at least until the implausible, puzzling denouement.

If its story line is still a bit murky, “Runaway Home” conveys a poignant sense of the human suffering that follows a natural disaster — long after the cameras have stopped rolling and the world has turned its attention elsewhere.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

‘Runaway Home’

Where: Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., L.A.

Where: 8 p.m. Mondays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; ends Nov. 5

Tickets: $20-$40

Info: (323) 663-1525 or www.FountainTheatre.com

Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes

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