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By Way of Workshop Comes THE WAY WEST

Playwrights’ Corner
The Way West at Steppenwolf Theater
Caroline Neff, Dierdre O'Conell and Zoe Perry in "The Way West" at Steppenwolf Theatre Company in 2014. (Photo by Michael Brosilow) via americantheatre.org

A handful of years ago, I found myself sitting across from Mona Mansour in the basement of Reunion Surf Bar late on a Monday night after a session of the Rita Goldberg Playwrights’ Workshop where she had just been sharing a smattering of scenes from what would eventually become her play The Way West.  Riding high from the nervous energy of hearing brand new work read aloud and a few drinks, Mona was speaking passionately about the fact that writers never talk to each other about money.  That for all of the industry chatter, working artists rarely seem to discuss the brass tacks of making ends meet because such discussions remain taboo and the sordid details of income earning get swept under the rug.

While dividing up the group bill, we joked about the awkwardness that money introduces in even the friendliest circles, but the more serious foundation of that conversation has really stuck with me.  Embedded in the contradicting idea that theater is widely acknowledged as a tough business, while those pursuing their craft are expected to find a seamless way to subsist by hook or crook, are the larger issues of American wealth, class and privilege.  

Mona takes these pervasive myths of rugged individualism, pulling oneself up by the bootstrap and exceptionalism and works them into the play in delightfully theatrical and comedic fashion.  I still laugh just thinking about one of the first scenes that she brought in to the Workshop.  In the comfort of their California living room, Mom is regaling her two skeptical daughters with a preposterous story about a woman traveling west who beats a wild dog to death with her own broken leg in order to survive the journey.  Mom believes that her pioneer legacy is one of great strength and endurance, which now comes in handy as she sticks out a long line at the drugstore. 

This perspective might be harmlessly delusional except for the fact that Mom is in serious denial about her substantial debt and worrisome physical symptoms.  Much to the dismay of Manda, the older daughter who is visiting from Chicago, things are falling apart at an alarming rate.  Meesh, the younger daughter still living at home and resenting every familiar inch of the dead end town, shrugs her shoulders in response.  The three women being back together under the same roof forces each of them to face some unflattering truths about their own identities, feelings towards one another and relationships to those who circulate in and out of their lives.  As the immediate foundation beneath them begins to crumble, cracks appear in their assumptions about constant abundance and the ease of modern living.  The women’s penchant for breaking out in amusing rounds of prairie song morphs into an urgent refrain to forge ahead and fight until the bitter end to keep what they have, no matter the cost.   

Some playwrights, including Mona herself, might equate writing and developing a play to crossing the country in a covered wagon in the hopes of reaching an unseen promised land.  It seems artistically apropos that the BareBones workshop of The Way West here at The Lark in the fall of 2012 took a direct hit from Hurricane Sandy.  Some people might find the idea of the creative team overcoming the adversity of a historic natural disaster to report to rehearsal and make art absurd.  For me, watching multiple runs of the play after a string of fraught but comparatively luxurious days spent stranded in Brooklyn brought the themes of personal struggle, perseverance and singularity that Mona is grappling with as they relate to our collective ideals into sharp relief. 

The theater, even in the midst and aftermath of a superstorm, was and is exactly the right place to explore those knotty notions.  After the Lark, The Way West charted a path to production at Steppenwolf and is now running at Labyrinth Theater Company.  In a watershed election year in the United States, where questions about our own national history and future hang heavily and unsettled in the air (much like an unpaid bar tab), I can’t think of a better time to head for the Hudson on Bank Street and see this play.  Just be sure to bring cash for drinks.

THE WAY WEST is now running through April 3, 2016 at Labyrinth Theater Company.  For tickets and more information, visit labtheater.org.

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