Over the last century, a handful of images became emblems of the American immigrant experience: the Statue of Liberty as seen from the railing of a ship entering New York Harbor. Endless lines at Ellis Island filled with persons tired, poor, and/or huddled. The dark, claustrophobic tenements of the Lower East Side. Ed Asner in a wifebeater.
Theater Alliance’s sleek production of Ambition Facing West is blessedly free of such historical window-dressing (and back hair). Yes, Anthony Clarvoe’s 1997 play follows one family across three continents and four generations, but it does away with the epic sweep (read: bloat) of the Rich Man, Poor Man school of historical drama. The secret of Ambition Facing West lies in how it flips the familiar formula. It’s a tale of emigrants, not immigrants.
Clarvoe isn’t terribly interested in why people come to a new place; he’d rather explore why they leave their old one. The play’s action shifts between three eras, starting in Croatia in 1910. Young Stipan (Joe Isenberg) yearns to escape his dying village for America, to the consternation of his stern mother (Amy McWilliams). In 1940s Wyoming, Stipan has grown into a union organizer (Brian Hemmingsen) whose daughter Alma (Maggie Glauber) struggles with her own desire to leave home. In the 1980s, Alma (McWilliams again) is now a successful career woman living in Japan with her grown American son (Brandon McCoy), who forces her to confront the restlessness that has become part of their lineage.
Consider the above paragraph your official Ambition Facing West scorecard, and keep it handy. You’ll thank me, because Clarvoe’s script simply barrels ahead, leaving it almost entirely up to the director and design team to clue the audience in on how characters in one time period are related to those in another. It’s a big job, because both Stipan and Alma are played at two different ages by two different actors, and most of the other actors also double up on roles. Erin Nugent’s smart period costuming helps to sort things out, but I can’t help thinking more could have been done in the blocking to help the audience twig onto who’s who and when’s when more immediately. The furrowed brows I saw in the lobby during intermission would seem to bear this out.
But that’s a quibble, because former Artistic Director Jeremy Skidmore’s return to the Theater Alliance director’s chair is clearly a victory lap. Clarvoe’s script is smart, funny, and fast, but not without its pitfalls, and Skidmore makes certain his actors vault over these without breaking stride. Here’s a big one: Jennifer Mendenhall plays Alma’s mother, who delivers a lengthy speech late in the second act that is overstuffed with crazily labored architectural metaphors about heartbreak. (“Ballrooms of agony! Great halls of sadness!”) It’s so big the obvious choice would be to play it for laughs, but Mendenhall digs in and utterly sells it. She gets right to the desperation at that speech’s core and cracks it wide open, which is decidedly less funny—and infinitely more interesting.
Amy McWilliams tosses off the best lines in a script that’s full of damn good ones, though you might have a bit of trouble hearing some of them. The wooden platforms that designer Tony Cisek has built over a white gravel expanse are handsome indeed, and they dutifully evoke a Croatian dock, a Wyoming patio, and a Zen garden, in turn. But the cast’s hard-soled shoes clomp over the boards and crush into the pebbles so loudly that the actors literally step all over the punchlines. Whether that’s a timing issue—clomp, halt, then declaim—or simply a cobbling one, I’m not sure.
The jokes you do manage to hear are definitely worth hearing. In fact, whenever one of them failed to land with the force it seemed to deserve, I found myself getting impatient with the sleepy matinee audience members around me. I wanted them to see what I was seeing: a show unafraid to embrace a healthy bit of ambiguity and restraint. Skidmore and his able actors draw you the map, but they let you drive.
There’s a moment late in the play, for instance, when Hemmingsen’s adult Stipan recalls a confrontation between his younger self and the village priest (deftly played by Eric Messner) who entreated him not to leave for America. As the argument ends, you realize the production hasn’t stacked the emotional deck against one character or the other; both men are noble, and both are selfish, the way humans are. Ambition Facing West quietly suggests that leaving a place forever is always an act of both bravery and cowardice, bound inextricably together.
Natural Theatricals’ latest musical, Will You Know It’s Me? written by Artistic Director Paula Alprin, opens with an art gallery owner named Tina (Alprin) receiving a visitation from Margery Kempe, the medieval Christian mystic (Deborah Rinn Critzer). Here’s what follows, or at least as much as I could make out over the crazy: biographical details of Kempe’s life are dispensed, in great detail and at considerable length. Sundry theological and mythological matters come under protracted discussion. Whimsy happens. (Did I mention the gallery’s called Penned Aura? I didn’t? See how I try to protect you?) While all this is going on, songs get sung and dances danced by a chorus of playful scalawags in brightly colored breeches. Yeah, I know. I didn’t even get to the mommy-issues stuff, which comes out of precisely nowhere, but trust me: This show has been crammed to the gills with ideas.
What it hasn’t been, however, is shaped in any meaningful way. We never understand what the piece is trying to say, because it never shuts up. Dialogue streams ceaselessly from the characters’ mouths, delivered without notable variation in tone. Given the show’s throw-everything-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks narrative structure, that’s a problem. The audience needs more help figuring out which of the play’s 31 flavors is more important than the others. Without those cues, it swiftly becomes difficult to make much sense of anything that happens.
Critzer’s Margery, for example, falls mewling to the floor every three minutes or so. After the fourth time, it suddenly dawns on you that this is supposed to be funny, but of course it’s too late. Your brain, which has by this point permanently assigned the character’s unprovoked bouts of hysteria to the mental box marked “what the fuck?” won’t be able to recalibrate. The show’s music offers a similar puzzle. It sounds pretty tight during the overture but once paired with lyrics like, “And it’s funky being/Unalike as well as so electric!” let’s just say it loses something.