Directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited
“It was the ghost of rationality itself … This is the ghost of normal everyday assumptions which declares that the ultimate purpose of life, which is to keep alive, is impossible, but that this is the ultimate purpose of life anyway, so that great minds struggle to cure diseases so that people may live longer, but only madmen ask why. One lives longer in order that he may live longer. There is no other purpose. That is what the ghost says.”
― Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values
Just as Penny, Rorie, Annabel, Ryan, and Tim Billy make several significant stops on their bike trip from Boston to the west coast, “Bike America” makes several significant stops on its way to its dramatic climax, falling action, and resolution. Although a variety of interesting conflicts drive a variety of interesting story lines, Mike Lew’s play, like its protagonist Penny, never seems to find itself. Interestingly, that is not in itself a negative thing. Mr. Lew’s play perfectly counterpoints the “millennial moments” Penny experiences as she attempts to “drop down on some other life” than her own.
Penny’s (Jessica DiGiovanni) companions on the Bike America tour cross-country try anything and everything to convince her to accept herself, make deep connections, and begin to live. Penny can handle connections without commitment but when Ryan (Tom White) and Tim Billy (Landon G. Woodson) want more than casual sex or flirting, Penny flips out and shuts down. And when her “boyfriend” Todd (Vandit Bhatt) chases her down with his scooter, Penny melts down with another “millennial moment.”
Even married couple Rorie (Melanie Nicholls-King) and Annabel (Marilyn Torres) cannot penetrate Penny’s defenses. These two women get married in every city they visit just to affirm the importance of same-sex marriage and they invite Penny to one of these weddings in Arizona a state that does not recognize same-sex unions. Seeing their struggle against non-acceptance and their deep love does not convince Penny she needs to love in order to live. Once again, she is seen at the brat stuck in a generational mélange of failed values.
Ultimately, Penny refuses to own the millennial brat moniker. She confesses to Van Man (David Shih) that she is running to something, not from something. Her refusal is heartfelt and authentic: “I need to move, okay? I wish I could settle down like they want but I have to lead an examined life. And that’s not just a childish notion. That’s an inherently American notion that goes back for hundreds of years, so screw you for saying I’m having a “millennial moment.” Like the narrator in Robert M. Pirsig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values,” Penny discovers that the journey itself is the solution: the ultimate purpose of life is simply to keep alive. Unfortunately, Penny’s realization comes too late.
The audience knows from the beginning that Penny will be killed by an asleep-at-the-wheel trucker when she decides to go off on her own. Before she departs, she tells Van Man, “Look, Man, just stop. I have to go down this road. On my own. Even if there’s nothing down there I have to go see for myself. You got your journey and this one is mine now.” In a post-death soliloquy, Penny expresses regret about the past and wishes things had been different: “And I felt these waves of regret at being a fuckup. And I felt these waves of regret at all the time I spent looking outwards, all that deflection when I should have just loved and lived. And I could have loved. Anyone. And I could have lived. Anywhere. Anywhere down that 4,000 mile expanse. There were 4,000 Pennies all down that route and yet I had to go and pick that one.”
The multi-ethnic cast of “Bike America” is just perfect. Each actor brings her or his character to an authentic reality. Under Moritz von Stuelpnagel’s brilliant direction, the cast effectively portrays one twenty-something’s journey to discovery, a discovery that although redemptive is sacrificial. Hopefully Penny’s cathartic death enables her friends and boyfriend re-examine their commitments and life choices and enables the audience to do the same.
Penny’s response to Annabel sums up the quest for meaning for all generations: “And you. You want me to love and embrace connection? Don’t you know I’d do anything to feel love like you do? But right now I don’t feel connected to any of you, I’m sorry, I don’t. And I know that’s my fault and I know that that’s terrible and I probably don’t even deserve love but I just want the space to figure this out on my own is that really too much to ask?” Mike Lew’s “Bike America” gives the audience the space to begin that important journey of discovery and is a remarkable gift from the Ma-Yi Theatre Company.