by Charles Brousse
It’s hard to know what to make of Mona Mansour’s The Way West, which is currently making its Bay Area debut at Mill Valley’s Marin Theatre Company (MTC). Is it an amiable satire of our infatuation with Hollywood’s depiction of America’s Old West as a land filled with self-reliant pioneers who face every adversity with a combination of optimism, grit, ingenuity and the ability to break into song at a moment’s notice? Or, is the satire part of a serious assessment of how far we’ve strayed from the promise of the American Dream? Or, is it a ’60s “happy hippie”-style rumination on nothing in particular but everything in general?
Perhaps The Way West defies explication. It is what it is. Classical music composers often offer us whimsical trinkets that they call divertimenti. Why not dramatists?
In any case, Mansour’s play comes to Marin with a solid pedigree. Vanquishing tough competition to win MTC’s Sky Cooper New American Play Prize in 1913, it continued to be developed through readings and dramaturgical assistance here and in New York—a process that led to its April, 1914 world premiere by Chicago’s prestigious Steppenwolf Theatre Company. Though most of her playwriting activity has been elsewhere, Mansour is also widely known in the Bay Area for her work with San Francisco’s Golden Thread Productions, a company with the mission of using live theater as a means to widen public acquaintance with Middle Eastern culture.
Mansour’s protagonist, a character simply known as Mom, reminds me of Berthold Brecht’s Mother Courage—except that instead of having to defend herself and her family against external threats as they wander the ravaged battlefields of 19th century Central Europe, Mom has to cope with the daily tribulations of an ailing widow in a decaying Central Valley, California house, surrounded by family members and visitors who nonchalantly add fuel to the approaching collapse.
There’s daughter Michele (Kathryn Zdan), an immature underachiever who has been more or less secretly “borrowing” from Mom’s accounts for many years, hastening the day when the financial well will run dry. There’s daughter Amanda (Rosie Hallett), a Chicago-based businesswoman, who comes home for a visit determined to put her mother’s affairs in better order, but ends up hearing that the project she has been working on back in the Midwest has imploded. There’s Tress (Stacy Ross), Mom’s entrepreneurial friend, whose “magic water” lotion, developed with Mom’s financial assistance, comes a cropper. And, finally, there’s Luis (Hugo E. Carbajal), the family friend and counselor who offers mouthfuls of earnest but ineffectual advice.
While all of the above-named actors skillfully bring their characters to life, it is Anne Darragh’s portrayal of Mom that gives the play its distinctive flavor. Undaunted by successive disasters, she draws upon the “wisdom” of the Old West (popular sayings imprinted in rustic lettering on panels introduced by director Hayley Finn) to carry her through. Even as she sinks farther and farther into the mud, she fears nothing, and holds no grudges until, inevitably, like Mother Courage, she can go no further.
The music team of Sam Misner and Megan Pearl Smith contributes some catchy 19th century country-style melodies, and Geoffrey M. Curley’s set—a cluttered room under arches that suggest the supports of a canvas-covered prairie schooner—adds to the ambience.
For all this, the play’s central problem is the pervading sense of moral detachment. Mom’s struggle is real. It touches us viscerally. If (as it seems) nothing matters very much for Mansour’s characters, how can it matter to us?
Tip of the week: Fifth of July, Lanford Wilson’s classic treatment of the challenges facing returning Vietnam War veterans, is on the main stage at Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre Company. It’s a big play for a small space, but if you’ve never seen it, this is a rare opportunity.
NOW PLAYING: The Way West runs through May 10 at the Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. Information: 415/388-5298, or email@example.com. Fifth of July runs through May 17 at Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Information: 510/843-4822, or auroratheatre.org.
Charles Brousse can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.