In the best scene of Mona Mansour's "The Way West," the otherwise rather frustrating new play at the Steppenwolf Theatre Company that contrasts the optimism of initial Western expansion in these United States with today's struggling California middle class, we witness a small, specific and telling American nightmare — the inability to pay for your pizza.
The pizza guy in the play, set in Stockton, Calif., arrives with the usual expectations. But the matriarch (known only as Mom and played by Deirdre O'Connell) at the center of Mansour's play is in the middle of a personal bankruptcy proceeding that is likely to mean she loses her house. She can't pay her share of the pie. Her younger daughter, Meesh (Caroline Neff), has a good bluff but no money. Older daughter Manda (Zoe Perry), who is visiting from Chicago, keeps pulling out credit cards, which the delivery guy (Ira Amyx) — who is himself too old for this underemploying gig — runs through his Square reader. They're all declined. Tensions boil. Hearts, and the pizza, end up crushed.
It's both a funny and a moving scene that captures how fast technology reveals the skeletons in our closet, how the euphemisms we all have witnessed when a card gets declined on the spot still sting and humiliate. It shows that Mansour can write a believable scene with rich characters. This is not the only such potent moment in this play: One of Mom's colorful friends, Tress (Martha Lavey), has been trapped by a can't-miss moneymaking scheme, and her sadness when it fails is palpable and similarly poignant. But when it comes to putting characters and scenes together into a satisfying whole, Mansour, and Amy Morton's production, have a lot more work to do.
One calling card of "The Way West" is the inclusion of little songs that reflect Mom's obsession with the pioneer spirit and the settlers who came west in their wagon trains (and who had so much drive and guts that they would have run right over that pizza guy). These songs are accompanied by historic images projected on Kevin Depinet's otherwise realistic setting, and Mom sings little snippets, accompanied by her two daughters on guitar. They are, I suppose, a way to give the play more zest and originality, but they really don't work very well in Morton's world premiere, mostly because it's never made clear whether Mom is really singing them in the main imagined world — as in a traditional musical — or whether we're departing for another style altogether in these interludes. And if it's the latter, which it seems to be, where exactly are we going?
It is as if no one could quite decide that pivotal question, which means the daughters will suddenly exit, awkwardly, in the middle of a scene to go find their instruments, even though what they are saying at those moments suggests they would do nothing of the kind. Furthermore, the songs are a big feature of the early part of the play, then they seem to fall away, as if everyone has tired of the idea. Well, the show needs to either drop 'em or go for 'em, but not land in the mush.
There are a lot of issues of believability that crop up in this play and production. At one point, there's a small fire: How the characters describe its starting is totally different from the fire we actually see starting on the stage, even as they are describing it. This is a piece of staging that really lacks the necessary detail. At another point, a garage collapses because, says Meesh, "her car was holding it up." Seriously?
And Manda's background doesn't really hold together. Her job as a grant writer suggests she works for a big Chicago nonprofit, but when Mansour needs this character's financial world to fall apart remotely (there sure are a lot of people on the phone in this play, which rarely satisfies in drama), her treatment suggests a very different kind of employer. And how did she get out there with no working credit cards? This feels a lot like a character pulled by the demands of plot and idea to a very different place from the one that both the playwright, and the actress, have first established.
Certainly, "The Way West" is not trying to be cold, hard realism, but when you are writing about economic and social realities, such matters must be thought through, lest they pull the viewer from the play. There also is the matter of a relationship between Manda, who is single, and an old flame from the past (played by Gabriel Ruiz) that made no motivational sense to me whatsoever. It's so seriously underwritten, it fits awkwardly into the whole.
Much of the acting in Morton's production is enjoyable. Neff is as feisty as ever. Lavey, in a small role that also feels underdeveloped, is moving. And the very capable Perry, whose role here reminded me of her fine work on Broadway in "The Other Place," alongside her mother, Laurie Metcalf, forges the most normative and empathetic character. But although I don't think it's mostly the actor's fault, O'Connell had (at the performance I saw Friday night) yet to find a way to really command this story, songs and all. The show lacks a clear central heart. And, for the record, an ending that satisfies.
It feels rather like "The Way West" came too fast to the mainstage season, just as Morton's staging feels similarly rushed. Yet the picture of recession-strapped Stockton that emerges in the play, with its abandoned developments of new homes, already feels dated. Of course, the characters whom Mansour is writing about — and it is good she is writing about them and that Steppenwolf remains wonderfully committed to the exploration of their lives — are not likely to benefit from the new recovery, lacking the skill set to network in Seattle or San Francisco and carrying the baggage of the fiscal ravages of the immediate past.
There are many such folks. That is the most interesting theme, and the way forward for "The Way West." For the new, real way west is by no means open to all
When: Through June 8
Where: Steppenwolf Theatre Company, 1650 N. Halsted St.
Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes
Tickets: $20-$78 at 312-335-1650 or steppenwolf.orgCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun