In “The Way West,” Mona Mansour’s timely black comedy at Labyrinth Theater Company about bankruptcy and the American way, Dierdre O’Connell plays a mother who likes to tell her two grown daughters stories about the West – about how Westerners are different, maybe better, because of their pioneering spirit. They faced many great challenges; they were given many new opportunities: “We got new land, new people, new ideas. You stake a claim, you find a granite wall, you stick the dynamite in, and boom. Maybe there’s gold.”
Or maybe everything just blows up. In many of the stories she tells, the hardy pioneers don’t survive.
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We are “somewhere in California a few months after the last financial meltdown,” (the program informs us), and eldest daughter Manda (Nadia Bowers) has been called home to help her mother sort out her financial difficulties; Mom is broke and wants to declare bankruptcy, although she continues blithely to spend and even lend money she doesn’t have. Manda is the stable sister; she lives in Chicago now and works as a professional fundraiser for a university. Meesh, the younger sister (Anna O’Donoghue), stayed home, witnessing her mother slide financially and, as we soon discover, also physically. But Meesh is not doing so well either, and has become something of a part-time professional con artist. She took out a credit card in her mother’s name without telling her, charged $3,500 in cosmetics, and sold it on E-bay. Manda is shocked at her sister.
“You STOLE from our mother! And you committed identity theft.”
“How did I STEAL from her?” Meesh replies. “She had no credit anyway, so so what if her daughter came up with a way to pay some rent for a change, okay?”
But as the play progresses, Manda is revealed to have her own, more socially acceptable con going – a self-deception that her life is normal even though she spends more than she makes and is maxing out in credit cards.
Her own house of cards soon crumbles, as does the mother’s actual house (Kudos for some creative destruction by scenic designer David Meyer.)
Calamity reigns. “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold,” Yeats wrote, a line quoted by Joan Didion, a chronicler of California futility, chicanery and self-delusion, who seems a major influence on this play by Mona Mansour, who grew up in San Diego.
If all that befalls the family sounds too dark for “The Way West” to be counted as a comedy, it has the rhythms and sparkle of lighter fare, thanks to the playwright’s witty dialogue and gentle doses of absurdity; the smooth direction of Labyrinth’s artistic director Mimi O’Donnell; and the terrific six-member cast – above all, the always fabulous Dierdre O’Connell as the descendant of pioneers, who elevates deliberate denial into a basic tenet of the American West: “Sometimes when things are bad,” Mom says, “you do best not to realize what is the reality of the situation. That’s prairie wisdom.”
The Way West
Labyrinth at Bank Street Theater
Written by Mona Mansour
Directed by Mimi O’Donnell
Scenic design by David Meyer, costume design by Asta Bennie Hostetter, lighting design by Bradley King, music and sound by Ryan Rumery.
Cast: Nadia Bowers, Curran Connor, Alfredo Narciso, Deidre O’Connell, Anna O’Donoghue, Portia.
Running time: 100 minutes, no intermission
Tickets: $30 – $40
“The Way West” is scheduled to run through April 3, 2016.