Lifeline stages a captivating adaptation of Amy Timberlake's award-winning young-adult adventure.
A quietly tragic young-adult Western about sisters. Not a sentence I ever expected to write, but with One Came Home Lifeline Theatre brings to the stage an adaptation that not only achieves its usual standard of excellence, but also, unusually for an adaptation, presents a new and unpredictable story.
Certainly that’s in part because the source material is very current. Timberlake’s novel was published in 2013 to widespread praise, and while I now wish I’d read it, I’m also glad I didn’t—Jessica Wright Buha’s adaptation would pass for an original stage play if you didn’t know better. Georgie (Ashley Darger) is a rough and practical 13-year-old in 1870s Wisconsin who loved her older sister Agatha (Amanda Jane Long), even if Georgie couldn’t understand her interests in a life beyond Placid. But something between them went wrong, Agatha ran off, and two weeks later a faceless corpse wearing her best blue dress is carted into town. Everyone accepts Agatha is dead—except Georgie, who sets out into the prairie to find either her missing sister, or a target for her gun.
Scattered memories of the past flutter in and out of focus as Georgie sets out on her quest. At first the constant flashbacks are almost annoying, in the same way that Georgie does not start as a particularly lovable protagonist—she’s all spunk with no charm. But One Came Home’s real story becomes clear as it progresses, just as the play itself becomes smoother and more captivating.
It becomes apparent that we’ve been seeing things through Georgie’s eyes, but all the fire and gumption in the world can’t cover up the naive tween’s confusion. The more mistakes she makes, and the more her journey refuses to be what she hopes, the more lovable and sympathetic she becomes. As her clichéd Western adventure fails, the curtain rolls back to reveal her ignorance and errors back home, before Agatha's disappearance.
One Came Home opens with a tragedy, but one that our heroine hasn’t yet accepted. So we wait bated breath while Georgie explores the flowing beige-and-grey prairie set designer Alan Donahue has built for her, where the only signs of life are the birds. It’s going to come to her eventually, and that tension invests every little discovery with painful importance, and just a little bit of hope.
If anything, creating Georgie’s initially narrow worldview makes the cast's performances reserved and distant for too long. Like the rest of the play, they come alive only when things go very wrong for Georgie, and push back against her stubborn opinions. But that’s a small flaw in a brilliant scheme. This is a piece that digs into the limited perspectives of sisters at different points in life. Georgie and Agatha loved each other very dearly, even when they fought. But each suffered from the myopia of youth, their individual pretty pictures constantly shaken when the other’s perspective nosed in. One Came Home is achingly on the mark. It tells a subtle, very accurate story about growing up that plays perfectly with the strangeness, romance, and action of its Western roots.
Lifeline Theatre. By Amy Timberlake. Adapted by Jessica Wright Buha. Directed by Elise Kauzlaric. With Patrick Blashill, Heather Currie, Ashley Darger, Dan Granata, Jeff Kurysz, Amanda Jane Long, Errol McLendon and Miriam Reuter. Running time: 2hrs 15mins; one intermission.