First Look review: Steppenwolf’s ‘The Way West’ is a quirky, heartfelt look at the ever-diminishing idea of the American Dream
By Harrison Schaefer
Playing at: Steppenwolf Theatre Company, 1650 N. Halsted, through June 8. www.Steppenwolf.org
History: An ensemble consisting of seasoned veterans and a couple of actors making their Steppenwolf debuts bring to the stage Mona Mansour’s silly, music-fused, two-act play about a down-and-out family desperately trying to keep things together while everything seems to be falling apart.
Basic storyline: The story revolves around two sisters, their mother and the dire financial straits they all find themselves in. Taking place in Stockton, California — one of the largest U.S. cities to declare bankruptcy after the housing market collapse — the setting provides the perfect backdrop for the difficulties that abound in preserving the American Dream.
Manda (played by Zoe Perry), the older sister, returns home from her seemingly normal life in Chicago to help Mom (Deirdre O’Connell) file for bankruptcy. Upon her arrival, Manda is shocked by the severity of the financial situation and her mother’s declining physical health. Meesha (Caroline Neff), the younger sister who has been living near her mom, has grown used to her deteriorating finances and health and thinks Manda has come back only to scrutinize their way of life. Meanwhile, Mom refuses to acknowledge the reality of her problems, instead looking to old myths about the American West and how early pioneers were able to adapt and make do with increasingly scarce resources.
What stood out: Throughout the play, Mom and the sisters sporadically burst into songs about survival and the early days of the West. Although a bit hokey sometimes, the songs shed light on what it means “to be from the West” and how the American myth and manifest destiny are still very much a part of the collective mindset that intensely resonates in certain parts of the country.
Mansour offers poignant reflections on the cultural shifts that are taking place post-2008 and how the American identity of “pulling yourself up by the boot straps” is becoming less and less feasible. The story is the perfect balance of lighthearted goofiness and serious intense on modern living, with an ending that is startlingly serious.
Final thoughts: Easily digestible, fun-filled and insightful, The Way West is definitely worth seeing for both theater lovers and newcomers alike. Filled with energy and thought-provoking subject matter, the play will generate some deep but satisfying discussion about the obstacles — both with our finances and personal relationships — we face in today’s messy world.