May 31, 1889. A flood of epic proportion rolled through Johnstown, PA, when a dam failed and released 20 million tons of water (4.8 billion US gallons), killing more than 2,200 people and causing $17 million in damage. This cataclysmic event takes center stage in the world premiere of Rebecca Gilman’s new play, A True History of the Johnstown Flood, running at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre from March 31 to April 18, with direction by Robert Falls.

Scenic designer Walt Spangler was faced with the challenge of creating a flood on stage and not just once, but in two different manners. “In the first act, you see the flood in 1889 as it happens, and then you see it again through the eyes of a 19th-century audience in the second act,” he explains. To create the flood on stage in the first act, he used an overhead sprinkler system that emits a soft mist, with the addition of lighting and fans to create the effects of a turbulent storm. The actors try to escape to higher ground on a muddy slope (not real mud, but really wet and slippery, and a challenge for the actors, Spangler notes), giving the set a sense of reality. “This act is all about pulling the audience into the emotional state of the flood,” he says.

In Gilman’s second act, the deluge is reenacted theatrically. “You really see the spectacle of it,” says Spangler, who turned to 19th-century theatre techniques to create this version of the inundation, using layers of spinning set pieces with many layers of paint to evoke the roiling waters, with people, animals, and trees floating by. “The set pieces are vertical, like giant spinning pinwheels,” Spangler adds, noting that all the elements were built and painted in the Goodman’s shops. “This second version of the flood is more about having the audience looking at it; it’s all about the visual and a way to return to old theatre techniques and see how to use them now. There are no projections, but this is the most painted scenery I have ever designed for a show.” Additional visual effects include the Pullman car of a train derailed and up-ended on stage and then finally swept away.

In fact, the actors are playing a family of 19th-century actors who are caught in the flood and find their entire world turned upside down. We see them in three plays-within-the-play, each with its own set, including a Southern plantation and a Mexican hacienda, created using 19th-century-style drops with painted perspective. “These drops are intentionally fragile, like the lives of the actors in the plays,” says Spangler, who enjoyed the chance to return to the techniques of the past to help fool the eye of a modern audience.