Review: 'Lewiston' at the Long Wharf Theatre
OnStage Connecticut Critic
NEW HAVEN, CT - “How much chaos can one person create in one day?” Samuel D. Hunter strives to answer his own character’s question in his new work, Lewiston. A recipient of a 2014 MacArthur “Genius Grant” fellowship, Hunter stays close to home with his writings. Hailing from Moscow, Idaho, he has been writing plays that take place in this northern state that usually conjures up images of potatoes for most Americans. Few may realize that Meriwether Lewis and William Clark made their historic expedition through present-day Idaho in the vicinity of Lewiston, where this play takes place.
The story takes place on the ranch of Alice (Randy Danson) and her friend and roommate, Connor (Martin Moran). Once upon a time, the ranch was much larger, but we learn that it has been sold off to a condominium developer over the years. Now all that is left is Alice’s home and a small fireworks stand, and the developer wants those last 20 acres in exchange for one of their condominiums.
Enter Marnie (Arielle Goldman), the long-lost granddaughter of Alice, who shows up unannounced after no contact with her grandmother for 16 years. We learn that the chasm between granddaughter and grandmother occurs because of the sudden death of Alice’s daughter and Marnie’s mother, whose voice we hear on audiocassette excerpts played throughout the show (wonderfully voiced by Lucy Owen). Marnie has come for her inherited share of the land after being bought out of her sustainable farm back in Seattle.
As Gordon Edelstein points out in his Artistic Director’s notes in the program, Hunter’s characters speak Chekhovian; they all are ordinary people lost in varying ways and looking for something. But like with Chekhov, if you’re looking for a neat, tied-up package of a conclusion, this isn’t the show for you. Satisfaction in the resolution isn’t the reason for these types of plays: it’s about the examination of the human condition; as Connor succinctly puts it, “I’m living my life bending to the will of it.”
Like with Chekhov’s 19th-century Russian characters, we recognize the day-to-day 21st-century Americans immediately - the conservative, closeted Midwesterner; the hip, sustainable Seattle denizen, and the cantankerous, tough, older woman – with more than just the surface characteristics. Hunter’s depth of and layers to his characters come through in the poignant, strong performances of all three actors, directed admirably by Eric Ting. Ting gave his cast the freedom to take their time with their characters’ emotional journeys. This led to moments where the actors spoke volumes – without saying a word, a testament to the extreme talent of this cast.
Goldman’s portrayal of the cynical hipster millennial Marnie is intense and righteous; she is a wounded animal backed into a corner when she first arrives on her grandmother’s ranch. She softens through her interactions with Connor and Alice, and as she reveals her secrets.
Danson’s Alice too is suffering from loss, which she portrays with sardonic hostility. Intimacy appears to be her kryptonite, even though she needs the company of others more than she likes to admit. Moran plays Connor as the mediator between the two with aplomb while coming to terms with his own very personal truth.
One criticism I have is some of the heavy-handed symbolism between fireworks and action in the script. I like my symbolism as much as the next former Honors English student, but I did feel that the firework symbolism was a bit blatant. The flickers, sparks, and sputters from the fireworks coincided with emotional flare-ups, awakened feelings, and dreams deferred; the fireworks always had to mean something more than just fireworks. Although when I mentioned the obvious imagery, my husband didn’t know what I was talking about. So maybe it’s just me (wouldn’t be the first time).
Despite my misgivings with their overt representations in the play, I have to give huge kudos to the production staff for the coordination and technical savvy required for the firework special effects in this show. Timing mattered for a number of the pyrotechnical effects and they nailed them all – at least as far as I could tell. Also I loved the beautifully realistic rustic set design by Wilson Chin: it made you feel like you were out in the prairie, right down to the textured ground. Completing the overall picture – which extended beyond the stage – included excellent sound and lighting design work by Brandon Wolcott and Matthew Richards.
Unlike with Chekhov, we are rewarded with a little bit of hope with Lewiston, “We have to believe that something good is possible,” Marnie says to her grandmother toward the end of the show. While we are uncertain of the fate of the three characters, we can certainly say that something good has resulted with this 90-minute microcosm of small-town America: deep, complex characterizations, compelling performances, and persuasive storytelling.