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'The Way West' A Wayward Journey

By Melody Udell in Arts & Entertainment on Apr 17, 2014 3:40PM

'The Way West' at the Steppenwolf. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

In 2012, Stockton, Calif. was the largest American city to file for bankruptcy. (Detroit, of course, now holds that honor.) This dried-up town, lacking in jobs, opportunity and successfully mortgaged houses, is where the Steppenwolf’s wildly uneven play, The Way West, is set. And just as the location suggests, playwright Mona Mansour’s dramedy is filled with all the heartbreaking desperation and self-denial can come along with financial insolvency.

Meesh (Caroline Neff) and Manda (Zoe Perry) are both attempting to steer their mom (Deirdre O'Connell), a sort of aging prairie woman who lives for tall tales of the Old West, through the requisite paperwork to declare chapter 11. But neither of them can seem to agree for long enough (or shield their increasingly aloof mom from one calamity after another) in order to make sense of the family’s “financials.” With Mom, it’s hard to tell what’s more frustrating: her seemingly self-imposed financial burdens or her stubborn optimism that things will work out. She keeps her mortgage paperwork in a biscuit tin and lets past due notices collect on the front step. Her daughters, both exhausted with their mother and each other, aren't much better. Meesh is a crass former Waffle House server whose only income comes from petty fraud. And Manda, who moved to Chicago to become a decently paid grant writer, can afford her own apartment and $150 haircuts but is suffocating in credit card debt. What’s worse, she justifies her $1,300 minimum payments by thinking that barely managing massive debt is her best option.

Mansour’s idea has potential (although exploring modern-day economic woes is admittedly a bit tired), but the Steppenwolf’s production has yet to find sure footing. Director Amy Morton attempts to weave in Mom’s well-worn tales of westward expansion, yet it’s unclear what these musical storytelling interludes purport to be. Should they flow seamlessly into the narrative, or should they jolt the audience into a far-flung ode to Manifest Destiny? Transitions are clunky as Mom (and daughters) shift into storytelling mode. Suddenly, Kevin Depinet’s wholly believable set—resembling the cluttered interior of the family’s home—is awash in projections of covered wagons. It’s even more jarring, staging-wise, when Meesh and Manda pluck the guitar alongside Mom as they croon along to prairie tunes.

Even the actors, who overall deliver fine performances, can’t make up for the show’s lack of strategy. As Mom, O'Connell has spot-on comedic timing, and she somehow manages to inspire pity alongside utter frustration. Gabriel Ruiz is charming as Manda’s former love interest, and Martha Lavey (also the Steppenwolf’s artistic director) has a small but moving part as a daffy, misguided entrepreneur.

While The Way West has its true moments of poignancy and even a few laugh-out-loud moments, it needs a more compelling plot and a fleshed-out tone. But if we've learned anything from the days of the gold rush and westward land-grabbing, it’s that the true pioneer spirit lives on, and with some work, so will this play.

The show runs through Sunday, June 8 at the Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted, 312-335-1650 or online.