The Way West

Reviewer's Rating

Thank goodness for The Labyrinth Theater Company and their consistent commitment to socially relevant theater executed at the peak of artistic integrity. The Way West team and actor Deirdre O’Connell have created an iconically memorable character in Mom– the living spirit of the American West, mismatched to the contemporary challenges of a crumbling or already crumbled middle class.

The play moves between Mom’s stories and songs of unflinching western survivalism, directed with gritty glee to the audience, and an essentially naturalistic play about all the pieces that come undone when basic financial security is gone, especially for someone older. Mom is 62 here, but an old 62. Daffily resolute and unfazed, she lost her job at the tire store a ways back, stopped paying bills, and now she’s hoping her more professional daughter Manda, back in from Chicago, can help her file for bankruptcy. This is the upbeat part! There is a bad dream quality, or rather an all-too-real reality as things slip revelation by revelation beyond where either of her daughters can catch the fallout anymore and fix things. There is a reason Mom clings to her heritage of wagon trail desperation.

There are no weak links in the cast. Anna O’Donoghue, as Meesh, the not-quite-bad-girl daughter who never left town, has that quality of seeming like she gets to say whatever she wants instead of following the script. She’s bratty with a sense of fun, like a young Amanda Peet. Meesh’s world of plausible low-rent scams is not the world of disability checks, meth, and opioid addiction, but she probably knows those guys. Nadia Bowers, as the put-together Manda with a soft spot for her old high school boyfriend, is appealingly layered in her reactions, serving as our surrogate trying to find out just how bad things really are for Mom, while avoiding how bad things might be for herself. Portia is an attractive relief as the charismatic, misguided entrepreneur Tress, although there was no real weight given in her performance—internalized or otherwise–to what had happened to her before her second appearance.

The set appears to be a serviceable rendering of a homey, tackily attired mid-century ranch house with an old stuffed couch, low roof beams framed above and a western skyline beyond the picture window. But as the bad news piles on for Mom, the technical team works some wizardry with that set that will rattle you and leave you wondering how they did it. The surprises are jarring, and they’re meant to be.

It has been a short run, and the show could still benefit from some tinkering. Mom’s grisly stories and songs entertain and reveal aspects of her character. But they also distance us from the emotional grip of the calamity unfolding around her, maybe once too often. It could be the desired result, but the audience is left at the surreal end dry-eyed and anxious, rather than moved, wondering about the financial sands shifting beneath their own habits of denial.