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  • Writer's pictureBen Kemper

The Way West

Or: Don’t Fence Me In

As painful and queasy as plays about sex are, plays about money are even worse. There is the same discomfort the same slow boil of regret (for the onstage mistakes and whatever errors lie lurking in our past) but entirely without the sugary glaze of endorphins that make fornication so treacherously appealing. Many stumble into financial straights not because of moments of weakness but because of moments of trying to be good (as playwright Mona Mansour so often shows us, generosity can be as crippling as flings). So much better then to break the long hard economics lesson with stories and songs of morbid merriment, celebrating that bright haired American Dream that sprinted west across a continent, treading upon the necks of the land and those who lived on it, and now has pitched itself over the fiscal cliff and to lie jellyfied on the canyon floor below.

In her new dark comedy Mansour takes us to the californian home of Mom (Deirdre O’Connell) a plucky decedent and disciple of the “Winners of the West”, those pioneers who survived the ridiculously dangerous hardships of the prairie. Now she is facing her own hardships: bankruptcy, a broken house and a broken body, with the same determined cheer and unwillingness to admit anything is wrong. She is attended by her two adult daughters: Manda (Zoe Perry) who’s become a successful grant-writer in Chicago and Meesh (Caroline Neff) who’s become what you would expect of a girl named Meesh. Together they try to pick through the neglected tangle of Mom’s finances, strive to survive on dwindling resources and frequently launch into old timey tunes and morbid stories (complete with surprise guitar pop ups and puppets) so that the evening becomes a mix of dark comedy, 90’s sitcom family drama, and western sesame street.

Set designer Nan Cibula-Jenkins and lighting designer David Weiner have captured the trappings of the west, those earth toned homes from the “random jut” school of architecture and that thick golden light; the last, hard won gift of the sun. But it is O’Connell who bridles the spirit of that time and that place. Her pemican-tough love, the vibrating twang of her voice, but most of all her ability to find humor, and even beauty, in misfortunes up to and beyond a severed arm, make her Mom a delight to watch while crystalizing a whole generation, shining in their strength and dazzling in their foolishness. Her antic disposition is masterfully counterpoised by Perry’s seesawing between yodeling accomplice in Ye Grand Ol’ Escapist Fantasy to her motions of horror of exactly what it is to leave your life and come back to find yourself trapped between a 90’s sitcom family drama and western sesame street.

Mansour knows how to put her characters through the ringer, their pile of woes both little and large reach truly staggering highest of misery. Though it offers a watery-eyed look at the seeming impossibility of remaining solvent, especially in the face of age, the play lifts its head when it examines the american identity and how always has careened toward financial upheaval. Dreams, after all, make much better plays than money.

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