Written by Mona Mansour
Directed by Mimi O’Donnell
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited
“You think I care that you’re judging me? I have a job, okay? /I work. At least I can go home and order food and pay for it. /I’m solvent.” (Delivery Guy)
Time after time, in Town Hall Meetings, Primary Election exit polls, and Caucuses in the 2016 Race for the President, the main concern of the electorate seems to be the economy, the lack of employment possibilities, and heroin addiction. Voters are understandably frustrated and angry that a country founded on self-reliance and westward expansion could be in such a fractured state. It would seem the perfect time for Mona Mansour’s “The Way West” which received its world premiere in 2014 at the Steppenwolf in Chicago and is enjoying a revival by the Labyrinth Theater Company in New York City.
There are numerous important plays that use the “way west” as a trope for self-discovery, determination, fortitude, hope in the face of calamity, and forging ahead. Unfortunately, Mona Mansour’s play forages its way across David Meyer’s expansive set at the Labyrinth Theater and just falls short of being one of those important plays. Ms. Mansour’s intent is genuine, but the play – in its present form – wobbles between realism and absurdism never giving either genre the opportunity to realize her noble dramatic goals. Does “The Way West” want to be Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath” or Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America?” Had Ms. Mansour leaned more toward a “fantasia” the play would have had more strength and a sturdier dramatic core.
Mom (played with a frenzied despair by the polished Deirdre O’Connell) loves to tell her adult daughters far-fetched stories that have sustained her and she hopes can sustain the stay-at-home Meesh (played with the clueless persona of a loser on the loose by the wonderful Anna O’Donoghue) and the helper-come-lately Manda (played with a dangerous naiveté by Nadia Bowers) as they struggle with the challenges of finding a footing in an unsteady economic environment. Her first story – addressed as much to the audience as to her daughters – is entitled “The Story of the Woman Who Turned a Problem into a Weapon.” This is Mom’s mantra really as she navigates her way through serious illness (her right arm is completely numb and she is wearing adult diapers), financial ruin (she has filed for bankruptcy), and relevance (she has become a parody of herself).
Mom’s struggle would be more interesting and more relevant if she had not brought most of her calamitous ruin upon herself. It is not just that the California economy is tanking leaving behind as many non-survivors as the 1846 Conestoga-crossing from Independence, Missouri to Sacramento City (outlined in Mom’s story “This Is a Basic Story about Crossing the Prairie”). The problem here is that all of the characters, Mom, Meesh, Manda, Robbie (played with a slippery core of amorality by the versatile Curran Conner) and entrepreneur friend Tress (played with a trusting but naïve honesty by Portia) are hapless creatures who have made terrible mistakes in judgement, engaged in criminal behavior, and are – except for Tress who has the modicum of a moral fiber – unlikable and unmotivated to move forward despite Mom’s mantra. And Manda’s ex-boyfriend Luis (played with only a modicum of relevance by Alfredo Narcisco) seems completely extraneous to the play’s rising action – and this is no fault of the skilled Mr. Narcisco.
Under Mimi O’Donnell’s reasoned but sometimes inconsistent direction, the ensemble cast gives each of their characters an often intense and hyperactive authenticity that fills the stage with an aching for redemption and release from the captivity of meaninglessness. The creative team has made some interesting choices: restricting the depth of the stage to serve the “surprise” ending of the play and using the entire length of the Bank Street Theatre space often making it difficult for audience members sitting audience right, for example, to see clearly what is happening on stage right. Giving the cast more room to navigate might have been a more judicious choice.
“The Way West” leaves the audience wanting to know more about how Ms. Mansour’s characters fell off life’s radar and how their current calamities might connect to the pizza delivery man’s (also played by Curran Conner) joy at having a job at thirty-three allowing him to be solvent and “go home and order food and pay for it.” Where did Mom’s clan make a wrong turn? Is their current status their responsibility or society’s shortcoming? “The Way West” seems to be a work in progress much like our country’s attempt to provide “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” for all its citizens. This is a play to be seen and judged on its own merit.