It was difficult to go into Saturday's performance of New Ground Theatre's The Way West without high expectations given the cast of women involved. I've enjoyed all four of them in the past and was certain I'd be impressed yet again, and by the end of the night, my respect for their talents was mostly renewed due to each one's admirable characterization.
Valeree Pieper, whose many notable roles include Violet in Quad City Music Guild's 9 to 5: The Musical in 2013 (my personal favorite), leads the way as the matriarch of playwright Mona Mansour's wry comedy about a family struggling in an economically-depressed California town. Having fallen on hard times, Pieper's character "Mom" is filing bankruptcy, and her adult daughters are attempting to help get her affairs in order even as the power is shut off and other effects of not paying bills come into play. This woman isn't the sharpest tool in the shed, and Pieper makes that clear with vacant looks that aren't so much airhead-y, but come from a conscious effort to not think about her responsibilities and the consequences she faces. As Mom tells tales of pioneers traveling West and hails their courage, implying that those are the means by which she'll also prevail, the actor maintains a controlled stage presence that's mixed with ever-bubbling exasperation. (Victoria Armaj's makeup job is also worth mentioning, as her understated decoration of Pieper's face adds to the character's beleaguered look.)
Ashley Hoskins, who first caught my attention as the central character in the Playcrafters Barn Theatre's Barely Heirs earlier this year, plays the eldest daughter Manda, a woman with a sense of responsibility befitting a first-born child. Frustrated with her mother, Manda tries to find order in the financial chaos and set things right by mailing bankruptcy letters to her mother's utility and credit-card companies. She's also frequently at odds with her younger sister, as Sarah Baxter's cynical Meesh would rather take advantage of the situation by charging bulk items to her mother's credit card. (Meesch plans to sell them for profit, believing her mother won't have to foot the bill because she's bankrupt, and the debt will be forgiven.)
Hoskins, who intrigues me for her unexpected, sometimes odd character choices, here tones down the about-to-burst manic emotions that I generally find delightful, and uses that inner chaos to play Manda as someone struggling to hold herself together in the face of being overwhelmed. In contrast, Baxter - whose saucy maid shined in last year's Something's Afoot at Augustana College - doesn't hold back as she glares through half-rolled eyes at her sister whenever Manda scolds Meesh. Sarcasm is read in Baxter's entire countenance, rather than just in her line deliveries, and her petulance during her time on-stage tickled me to no end.
Director Christina Myatt guides their performances with subtlety, preventing what could cross over into ridiculous, overly comical territory as the women face a house fire and vehicular accidents. Myatt's presentation of Mansour's play has sincerity at its core, allowing for laughs when appropriate, but also pulls at the heart strings, with these women facing harsh realities at seemingly every turn.
Alexa Florence's Tress is partly responsible for the family's troubles, as this irrational friend of Mom's convinced the financially-strapped woman to invest thousands of dollars into Tress's "magic water" therapy business - the only magic of which made Mom's money disappear. Florence is every bit as exuberant as her Claire in Playcrafters' 2013 Proof, even though her Tress isn't all that different from the other characters I've seen her play on this and other stages. Eric Reyes, however, offers a welcome, unexpectedly underplayed turn as Luis, a lawyer and ex-boyfriend of Manda's who is called in to help with Mom's situation. Gone is Reyes' usual habit of "putting on a show" performing, which is replaced by admirable subtlety and genuineness. And Tim Cook delivers a small but memorable bit as a pizza-delivery guy frustrated at the family's inability to pay for what Meesh ordered.
Mansour's play also has some unexpected elements, such as the songs the women sing while accompanied by Baxter on ukulele and a plot that progresses in ways that I didn't anticipate, all set against a beautifully dark, robin-egg blue backdrop in the silhouette of a house. (A set designer, though, is not listed in the program.) Meanwhile, Tim Cook's lighting effects, which distractingly dim and brighten throughout, prove an appropriate part of the story once explained. While the uncomfortably warm theatre space made it difficult to concentrate on the first act of Saturday's performance, the issue was corrected with air-conditioning during intermission, and I wound up enjoying The Way West as a unique script that wouldn't fit the personality of most local theatres, but fits in at New Ground perfectly.
The Way West runs at the Village Theatre (2113 East 11th Street, Davenport) through May 24, and more information and tickets are available by calling (563)326-7529 or visiting NewGroundTheatre.org.