The Way West
by Elise Marenson
There are a lot of laughs in The Way West about a family’s descent into debt and insolvency. With humor in pathos, playwright Mona Mansour captures the tenuous way many Americans are living nowadays, financially over their heads with no job security, or worse, permanently unemployed. Set in Stockton, California, about as far west as the pioneers could go, Mom (Deirdre O’Connell) is on the brink of declaring bankruptcy. She is so disorganized that her responsible daughter Manda (Nadia Bowers), who has been working two thousand miles away as a university fundraiser, comes back home to help her sort her finances.
We eventually learn that Mom had been laid off from a tire shop, but we don’t know how long she has been unemployed. Meesh (Anna O’Donoghue), the daughter who remained at home with Mom, doesn’t have a damn thing going for her either. When the good sister Manda finds a fraudulent credit card in Mom’s name with a thirty-five-hundred-dollar charge for Elizabeth Arden cosmetics, she leaps to the conclusion that Mom is the victim of identity theft. Turns out that her reckless sister Meesh bought loads of moisturizer to resell on EBay. Meesh insists that it wasn’t stealing from her mother, since Mom doesn’t have any money anyway. She later makes a veiled confession to another scam, buying merchandise at the Sports Chalet with a phony check, only to return all of it to a store in Arizona. Survival is the operative word in this story.
In the midst of this family crisis, Ms. Mansour captures the cockeyed optimism of the American psyche, whether in schemes and dreams or just plain ole pioneering tenacity. Mom loves to spin yarns of the pioneers pushing westward, many succumbing to the great perils of their trek. It is her one badge of honor that she is a descendant of the brave folk who made it to California. Mom’s friend Tress (Portia) epitomizes the sucker who falls for a pyramid scheme selling healthy “essential water” that turns out to be lighter fluid. Unfortunately, Mom is out twelve thousand bucks for her supportive investment in her friend’s sure-shot business venture.
Ms. O’Connell plays Mom with optimism and naiveté, as adept at avoiding reality as she is a peacemaker between her girls. Playing an eccentric is in Ms. O’Connell’s wheelhouse. This isn’t a complaint, as I am a fan of her work. Her comic delivery is impeccable, but it never interferes with her character’s truth. Ms. O’Donoghue and Ms. Bowers as her daughters Meesh and Manda carve fine, distinguishable portraits around their mother.
The supporting roles, including Tress, are played with more depth than normally given secondary characters. Manda’s old boyfriend Luis (Alfredo Narciso) tries to help Mom file for bankruptcy, while incapable of hiding his lingering feelings for Manda. (Curran Connor) doubles as Meesh’s ne’er-do-well friend Robbie and the Pizza Guy. For in the end, sensible Manda is as broke as her mother and sister, living beyond her means in the big city. When they order a Domino’s pizza, Manda’s two credit cards are declined. They mock Pizza Guy for delivering pizzas at age thirty-three. Indignant that these three paupers scorn his position, he admits that he was laid off, he like so many Americans forced to suck up jobs beneath them.
Mimi O’Donnell’s crisp direction strikes the perfect balance needed to pull off this comedic tragedy. Together with Ms. Mansour, they evoke the family’s back story that you see as plain as day. David Meyer’s scenic design hands us a shabby, low income ranch home, likely the kind of flimsy housing we pass on the interstate in rural America. There is nothing to see out the panoramic living room window, since all the neighbors have been foreclosed by The Big Short.
When they can’t even buy a pizza, Mom and her daughters go out foraging the fruit trees in the vacant lots surrounding them. They even sing about the joy of foraging. Here Ms. Mansour leaves us hanging. There is no real end to the story, no resolution or even a hint of one. As Mom says, “Sometimes when things are bad, you do best not to realize what is the reality of the situation. That’s prairie wisdom.”
WITH: Deirdre O’Connell (Mom), Anna O’Donoghue (Meesh), Nadia Bowers (Manda), Portia (Tress), Curran Connor (Robbie/Pizza Guy), and Alfredo Narciso (Luis).
Sets by David Meyer; costumes by Ásta Bennie Hostetter; lighting by Bradley King; music and sound by Ryan Rumery; production stage manager, Lily Perlmutter; production manager, Peter Smith; press representative, Blake Zidell & Associates. Presented by Labyrinth Theater Company, Mimi O’Donnell, artistic director; Danny Feldman, executive director.. At Bank Street Thearer, 155 Bank Street; 212-513-1080, labtheater.org. Through April 3. Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes.