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A CurtainUp Review
The Way West
By Charles Wright
Mom (Deirdre O'Connell), the protagonist of The Way West — like characters in Dominique Morriseau's Skeleton Crew, Taylor Mac's Hir, and Martyna Majok's Ironbound — is struggling to make ends meet in a society where wealth and want have been radically reapportioned. She's a Californian who prides herself on coming from pioneer stock. At age 63, she's filing for bankruptcy, but can't suppress the acquisitive impulses and devil-may-care attitude that have contributed to her fiscal decline. And she's looking toward a future without the societal safety net that previous generations have taken for granted.
The Way West is far and away the most whimsical of the recent hard-times plays, but it's no less bleak. Elder daughter Manda (Nadia Bowers) has returned to small-town California from her home in the Midwest to help Mom sort through her accounting records (such as they are) and navigate the intricacies of bankruptcy procedure. Manda works in development for a Chicago nonprofit and fancies herself the realist of the family. Her condescension quickly gets on the nerves of both her mother and younger sister Meesh (Anna O'Donoghue).
Meesh is a Gen X slacker and, as it turns out, a major contributor to Mom's economic misfortunes. In short order, sisters and mother have resumed the antagonistic relations of the girls' adolescent years. As the atmosphere of the household goes from bad to worse, Manda also falls back into old patterns with long-ago boyfriend Luis (Alfredo Narciso), who is engaged to someone else.
Mom's decline is both financial and physical. She exhibits various symptoms, which are largely unexplained because she refuses to consult a physician. Her overall degeneration is swift and inexorable, bringing to mind Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth. Like Wharton's Lily Bart (and the Nero of legend), Mom fiddles away time while her house burns down (in this play, though, the house really burns, a coup de theatre by scenic designer David Meyer).
Mansour frames the family's story with monologues delivered by Mom, who considers herself a repository of westward-ho wisdom and lore. The monologues, which liken Mom's economic challenges to the wild-west travails of 19th century settlers, are, for the most part, amusing; but director Mimi O'Donnell hasn't found a way to set them flush with the rest of the script.
A little of Mom's soliloquizing goes a long way and, in less capable hands than Deirdre O'Connell's, these sequences would be wearing. O'Connell, however, is one of the most adroit, compelling actors currently working on the New York stage, and her resplendent performance is reason enough to see The Way West.
Meyer, working hand-in-glove with lighting designer Bradley King and sound designer Ryan Rumery, has found clever ways to deliver, on an Off-Broadway budget, the whopping physical surprises in Mansour's wild and woolly script. Meyer, whose career is largely in film and television, works regularly with Labyrinth Theater Company and was responsible, earlier this season, for the memorably creepy environment of the troupe's Empanada Loca.
Mansour characterizes her play as "tall-tale realism" and that's an apt description. As a portrait of siblings and a parent, The Way West is a distaff True West. It's also a state-of-the-nation play with bad news to impart about life in the years since the economic crisis of December 2007.
Even in its most poignant moments, though, The Way West is very funny. Mansour's zanies have a lot in common with Kaufman and Hart's Sycamore family; and a case could be made that the play is You Can't Take It with You for the Great Recession. The striking difference is that, in new-millennium America as depicted by Mansour, the pluck and determination that Kaufman and Hart found among their Great Depression contemporaries have been elbowed out by despair.