Steppenwolf Theatre Company. By Mona Mansour. Directed by Amy Morton. With Deirdre O'Connell, Zoe Perry, Caroline Neff, Gabriel Ruiz, Martha Lavey, Ira Amyx. Running time: 1hr 50mins; one intermission.
Theater review by Kris Vire
For a piece that’s so overtly concerned with America’s pioneer spirit and the narrative of Western expansion, Mona Mansour’s new play at Steppenwolf comes across as frustratingly directionless.
Set in the great, insolvent state of California, The Way West follows a family of three women in varying states of personal financial crisis. Mom (Deirdre O’Connell) is a bit of a hoarder, judging by the accumulated piles of stuff stacked around Kevin Depinet’s unit set, and she’s become so deep in debt she simply stopped paying her bills somewhere between six and 12 months ago, but blithely chooses to believe everything will work itself out—including the worsening medical problems for which she refuses to seek care.
Her older daughter, Manda (Zoe Perry), has taken a leave from her job as a nonprofit grant writer in Chicago to come back and coach Mom through filing for bankruptcy; Manda’s younger sister, Meesh (Caroline Neff), stayed behind and has patterned her adult life roughly after Mom’s example, fired from one job after another and barely scraping by between failed get-rich-quick schemes. Manda seems at first blush to be the responsible one, but if you flinch at her insistence that paying $150 for a haircut is totally normal for a nonprofit employee, you’re on the right track.
Mom has a habit of telling tall tales about the pioneers’ indomitable spirit, which contain such bluff pronouncements as, “The prairie don’t care for introspection!” Director Amy Morton underlines these moments by pinning a tight spotlight to O’Connell’s face, while Mike Tutaj’s video projections of wagon trains and the like flicker on the walls of Depinet’s set. Often these sequences climax with Manda and Meesh suddenly brandishing guitars and joining Mom in odd campfire-style songs about the will to survive.
Steppenwolf’s production imbues these myths and hymns of American exceptionalism with an extraordinary amount of heart. O’Connell, Neff and Perry each bring admirable pluck to their performances. But somewhere in the mix of Mansour’s script and Morton’s production, the brisk tonal shifts go from jarring to utterly perplexing.
It seems like Mansour wants to comment on the unsustainability of America’s ever upwardly mobile self-presentation, which is perfectly valid. But it also feels as though we’re meant to laugh at the untenability of all three women’s teetering on the edge of disaster. For those of us who can recognize the same kind of desperate rationalizations in our own family members or ourselves, it’s not so hilarious.