Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Also see Richard's review of Cuddles
But it's one of those intensely rigorous shows that hadn't quite gelled on opening weekend, though I feel it will have gained more variety and resonance by the time you read this.
Actor Jeremy Goldmeier is already especially good in his share of the 142 characters that go hurrying by in this bustling pageant. It's just an extremely demanding script, and these intervening days will likely give all four of the actors more time to breathe and reflect on the dozens of micro-scenes and nano-twists and turns and unexpected plot syzygies demanded by nuclear physicist turned playwright Vladimir Zelevinsky. You can almost see all the huddled masses of subatomic particles, yearning to breathe free, that he's charted on some huge whiteboard to explain the Big Bang of Westward Expansion.
It's already good, but there is some unplumbed emotional depth and variety on stage. Fortunately, a great mensch, Steve Callahan, directs this production, and all the pieces are basically in place for an excellent second weekend. It's just a bunch of flowers that hadn't quite reached full bloom on the first Sunday. Or, in Mr. Zelevinsky's case, a seething block of uranium that hadn't quite reached critical mass, but one which shows every indication of doing so in the very near future.
The first act seems like a very polite version of a zombie apocalypse, chronicling the massive influx of immigrants from Europe to North America, delightfully woven together amidst personal tales of sacrifice and desperation. Then, act two takes a more sweeping tone, with longer scenes involving the trail of Conestoga wagons rattling across the plains and desert, toward the west coast. That's where actors Zach Venturella, Ariel Roukaerts, and Emily Johnson seem most at home, crafting characters that are built to last.
But so much time is spent panicking over leaky hulls that I wish there'd been a hatch or some other opening downstage, and perhaps bilgy shafts of green lighting coming up from below, for those nightmarish oceangoing interludes. Our own imaginations do a lot of work in this production, which isn't terrible, but the production team and performers need to meet us halfway more often.
You'll want to see it for all the sparkling bits of humor and the frequent reminders of the physical and emotional deprivations when everything's left behind for the thinnest promise of a brighter future. It's a perfect play for a political campaign season like this one, reminding us how lucky we are to do relatively well in our own country, without having to flee our birthplace to join a trail stained by death and disaster.
Through November 13, 2016, at the Union Avenue Christian Church. For more information visit www.westendplayers.org.