- Ambition Facing West
By Anthony Clarvoe
Produced by Theater Alliance
Directed by Jeremy Skidmore
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
There was a time, in the heart of human history, in which men who sought to escape the straightjacket of their society took to westward travel. It began in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, when Englishmen – second sons and other members of civilization’s backwater – went to America in great sailing ships, and settled in Jamestown and Plymouth Rock. It continued through the shadow of the first War. In America, the restlessness drove families further west: to the Mississippi, and beyond. To California, to Alaska, and to points yet further West.
To make this perilous journey, the traveler abandoned all he knew – his home, his family, his village and customs – sometimes for good. It required enormous patience, optimism, and fearlessness to make such a trip.
To a lesser extent, these same qualities of character will facilitate the theatergoer who undertakes Ambition Facing West, Anthony Clarvoe’s complex and subtle offering now running at Theater Alliance’s H Street Playhouse. Clarvoe’s multigenerational saga proceeds at the measured pace of a government official responding to a subpoena, and by the end of the first Act neither the primary conflicts nor the dominant themes are clear. But, thanks largely to Jeremy Skidmore’s electric staging and some of the best performances I’ve seen this year, the first Act engages nonetheless, and keeps us in place for the second Act’s explosive rewards.
Ambition Facing West is less about the lure of ambition than it is about the pain of leavetaking. On the shores of Dalmatia, a village in turn-of-the-century Croatia, a young man named Stipan (Joe Isenberg), while secretly learning to read (his father would beat him if he knew), dreams of going to America. His ambitions tear at the soul of his mother (Amy McWilliams), and grieve the village priest (Eric Messner), who recognizes that this young man, and dozens like him, represent the benighted village’s last hope to make itself whole again. Forty years later, Stipan is a grown man, an American labor leader and a man of substance (Brian Hemmingsen). He is married to a passionate woman in a crippled body (Jennifer Mendenhall). They have a brilliant young daughter (Maggie Glauber). Living in Wyoming mine country during the second War, they are under perpetual suspicion, based on their ethnicity. It does not matter. They stubbornly insist on being themselves. The parents also insist on thrusting Alma, their daughter – who wants to stay, in order to care for her mother and love her boyfriend – further west, to Stanford University. Forty years after that, in the eighties, Alma is grown, a hard-edged, witty businesswoman (McWilliams), opening a branch of the home company in Japan. She has a grown son (Brandon McCoy), rootless and unsettled, who joins her – and, to her astonishment, who falls in love with the practice of Zen. Joey’s leavetaking is more spiritual than physical, and when Alma departs Japan she realizes that the next time she sees him he may be an entirely different man than the one she kisses goodbye. These stories intercut each other, so that we are unaware of their interrelationship until they begin to spool out.
Think of all the bad things that such a play could be: treacly, tedious, pompous, unsubtle – and then take my word that Ambition Facing West is none of them. It is instead an exquisitely rendered commentary on the human condition, observed minutely not only by the playwright but by Skidmore and his cast. Every opportunity for sentimentality is turned away; every temptation to press the audience’s buttons or pull its strings is eschewed. The play faces human weakness directly; makes no one a false hero; and recognizes that human drama is, before anything else, human.
This is a formidable group of actors, and Skidmore gets their best from them. I don’t think I’ve seen Hemmingsen do a better job with a character. His Stipan is warm yet powerful, sweet and open yet clearly capable of defending himself and his family in hard times – an ideal father figure, on stage as in life. (Hemmingsen also successfully plays a recruiter for American immigration, a less well-drawn character). Mendenhall, playing a woman whose mind runs ahead of her facility in English, manages to convey a universe of emotion in a torrent of words, word gestures, and dialect, her damaged body twitching with frustration when her daughter fails to understand. McWilliams, playing two women who are losing their sons, shows agony in two distinct and compelling forms. Messner is absolutely convincing as a young Priest, full of good intentions, who worries about a nation whose principal export is young men. Later he joins a protoNazi group. And Glauber is simply marvelous, establishing the precursors of Alma’s character in the moving scenes with her parents.
In fact, you can see the quality of this work presaged when you walk in the theater. There you will see Isenberg (as young Stipan) and Glauber (as a girl from Dalmatia), far apart on the two sides of Tony Cisek’s remarkable set. They want to look at each other – they want to stare meltingly into each other’s eyes – but they are far too cool to do so. Instead, they steal furtive glances and then scurry back to their ostensible preoccupations – a book for him, a toy boat for her. It is done with such subtlety and authenticity that it will be easy to miss, particularly if you are reading your program or talking with your companion about the quality of the evening’s meal. But if you take a moment to watch, you will get an idea of the delights which lie ahead.
A word about the set. It is a rock garden, which might seem a curious choice for a play about ambition. But, oddly, it serves beautifully as the Ocean, as the stubble of a Wyoming yard, and as a place for Zen meditation. It also stands in well as a metaphor for the future which, as the adult Alma observes, has a way of jumping unbidden into your shoe. There it a little model of the set in the lobby, and it helps you see it for what it is: a vestibule to the wide world, to ambition’s reward, to what lies next.
(Running time: 2:30)
Where: H Street Playhouse, 1365 H Street NE. Washington, DC
When: Through Nov 4 Thursdays through Sundays at 8 p.m. and Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m.
Tickets: $30 Call 866.811.4111 or visit the website.