Children of the ‘90s, climb on board.
The Oregon Trail, modeled after the primitive computer game of the same name, is Flying V’s contribution to the Women’s Voices Theater Festival. Written by Bekah Brunstetter and directed by Amber Jackson, this world premiere uses the parameters of our cherished childhood game to balance two coming-of-age tales.
Jane (Madeline Key) begins as a sullen, grungy teen with angst as thick as her unkempt bangs. She’s stranded after school, waiting in the computer lab for her ride. When she logs on to the familiar game, she begins to see events play out as they once did on the real Oregon Trail – featuring a very vintage imaging of herself (Kelsey Meiklejohn), her sister (Julia Klavans), and their father (Ryan Tumulty). Oh, and instead of text prompts, the game is narrated auditorily by a disembodied voice (Zachary Fernebok) who knows the inner workings of Jane’s life and mind.
It’s Jane’s mind that makes up the main conflict. She’s depressed, and continues to be depressed as she moves from middle school to high school to college to her mid-twenties. Her activities, as best we can tell, are limited to sitting on the couch, annoying her older sister, and making a regrettable sexual decision with her middle school crush. She escapes her reality by returning, time and again, to her favorite computer game.
Meanwhile, the cast of characters tasked with moving west in a covered wagon faces challenges that, at surface level, seem familiar to those who have played the game – hunger, river passage, illness. But unlike the game, these challenges are explored in full dimension, showing us the difficulty of really fording a river, or of trying to ration one’s meat for the duration of a trip. Nothing is not as simple as the one-line summaries on the computer screen.
And the juxtaposition of these narratives is a tricky thing. While on one hand we can see the play’s attempts to speak to an inherited sadness and how Jane carries that history within her, the two narratives seem to create an inadvertent comparison of circumstance and coping – who is more “deserving” of sad or overwhelming feelings, whether modern-day Jane has earned her malaise (what has she had to overcome?). It seems to present the idea that settler-Jane is more worthy of her depression because she has faced real, circumstantial hardship – and this is a troubling theme indeed.
Key, Meiklejohn, and Tumulty do an admirable job with what is at times a difficult script. Key’s Jane moves fluidly through the two decades of growth, and Meiklejohn’s young settler girl is compelling in her navigation of strength and uncertainty. Tumulty’s performance as the father sets the tone for the westward pioneer scenes, and is at times poignant in his grief and stoicism.
THE OREGON TRAIL
(Part of the Women’s Voices Theater Festival)
September 3 – 20
at The Writer’s Center
4508 Walsh Street
1 hour, 30 minutes
Thursdays thru Sundays
Tickets: $15 – $25
Details and Tickets
Audiences who are irked by inconsistency might notice that the names Jane gives to her band of travelers doesn’t align with the group we see traveling west. And duets between settler Jane and modern Jane of songs like Alanis Morissette’s “One Hand in My Pocket” feel a little contrived and uncomfortable, as though someone fretted that the show wasn’t quite ‘90s enough.
But ultimately, The Oregon Trail offers up a JanSport-sized dollop of nostalgia and invites you to return, for a moment, to your own young days of blazing the trail.
For me? It harkened back to 7th grade, Mrs. Cushman’s keyboarding class, in a hidden classroom tucked behind a dance studio and a writing center. Our monitors faced away from the teacher’s desk, and when we’d completed our lessons on finger placement and speed-typing, we would open the beloved game. To this day, no one knows why the game was installed on those computers in the first place. Perhaps, like learning to type, surviving the trek to Oregon was a rite of passage intended for every new middle school student.
And, like that middle school student, The Oregon Trail is sometimes awkward, still growing into itself, but mostly just cute. (Plus, the program gives you suggestions for your own ‘90s playlist, which is, like, a super kewl bonus.)
The Oregon Trail by Bekah Brunstetter . Directed by Amber Jackson . Featuring Madeline Key, Kelsey Meiklejohn, Julia Klavans, Ryan Tumulty, William Hayes and Zachary Fernebok . Scenic Designer: Katheryn Kawecki . Lighting Designer: Kristin A. Thompson . Sound Designer: Neil McFadden . Scenic Charge: Britney Mongold . TD/Master Carp: Andrew Berry and Julie Roedersheimer . Audience Designer: Tia Shearer Bassett . Stage Manager: Corie Bruins assisted by Derek David . Produced by Flying V . Reviewed by Jennifer Clements.