by Rudy Gerson
For most people, declaring bankruptcy would be an unpleasant experience, but the matriarch of Labyrinth Theater’s current production of The Way West isn’t like most people. Played masterfully by Deirdre O’Connell, Mom is a plain-talking spitfire who approaches life in the same can-do spirit as America’s westward-bound pioneers—that class of people who risked it all to start anew in faith that a future bounty will come.
Bet on yourself. Take out a loan. If you get into debt now, you can pay it off later. Because better days are on the horizon.
It’s unclear whether this horizon will come anytime soon for the family of Mona Mansour’s fresh family play, but the ride is satisfying enough. Present-day mythologies of wealth accumulation and class meet the mythologies of the 19th-century pioneers.
Replace the hip shooter with the credit card user. The snake oil salesman with the “essential water” healer. And the debt collector with a CPA who specializes in Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
The Way West feels like a play long overdue. Three strong female characters fill the ensemble. Musical interludes weave through a plot driven by sharp dialogue and brilliant comedy. Manda the older sister from Chicago is played boldly by Nadia Bowers, who exudes her urban confidence just believable enough over the deep insecurities that accompanies her two-thousand-dollar-a-month rent.
She’s returning home to her once-middle class now medicore pit-stop of a California town to piece together her mother’s financials. In one of the early and most charming scenes of the play, Manda is hit on by her sister’s boyish partner Robby, played by actor Curran Connor, whose comic timing and dramatic presence are first-rate. She reveals she works in development at a university, specifically individual giving—a perfectly poetic profession in a play whose characters are all wishing for a gift from above.
The younger sister Meesh, who has stayed home throughout her twenties, makes continued attempts at “entrepreneurship.” Selling crafts on Etsy. Reselling wholesale goods on Ebay for retail price. And eventually, a wild west border crossing of her own.
Anna O’Donoghue captures the youthful angst that never quite leaves you when you’re in your late twenties and find yourself still living at home. Our 19th-century era mantra of Manifest Destiny wouldn’t have much to say on this last point. Yet, The Way West is a modern-day pioneer story that juxtaposes the thorny realities of 21st century financial precarity with the simplicity of moralizing fables.
Keeper of the fables—Mom is tireless in her optimism and staunch in her belief that it’ll all get better, and when she hits her old cassette player and revs up for one of her singsong stories, you can’t help but offer a warm smile. Mimi O’Connell provides pinpoint direction here to seamlessly transition the plot’s momentum into these metaphorical explorations of theme, without sacrificing an inch.
Scenic design by David Meyer expands the living room to feel like your family’s own: comfortable, cluttered, and always on the edge of collapse. The Way West is no different. With three of the actors (O’Connell, Bowers, Conner) having work-shopped the play with The Lark in 2012 and O’Connell herself in Chicago’s Steppenwolf premiere, the characters feel as familiar as your own kin.
Holding the financial collapse aside, they wouldn’t be a half-bad family to call my own.
The Way West. Through April 3 at Lab Theatre Co. (Bank Street Theatre. 155 Bank St). Run time: 1 hour 40 minutes, no intermission. www.labtheater.org Photos by Monique Carboni