Review: “Flyin’ West” at Westport Country Playhouse

Noah Golden

  • Associate Connecticut Theatre Critic

Pearl Cleage’s “Flyin’ West” was written in the early 1990s and set in 1898, yet the show has an ardent topicality that will surely resonate with audience members at the Westport Country Playhouse. The themes of discrimination, racial identity and the legacy one generation leaves for another in this segregated nation of ours are of the utmost timeliness, and the female-driven, anti-domestic violence narrative lies right at the heart of the current #MeToo movement. The moments in Seret Scott’s handsome and well-acted production where the characters speak freely and lyrically about the struggles they face as free black women stuck in an era between the Civil War and the end of the Jim Crow laws are moving and fascinating. Problem is, they’re buried in a boilerplate script that undermines the subtlety and intellect of its themes with one-dimensional characters and a series of contrived set-ups that would feel more at home in a Lifetime movie.

Photo: Carol Rosegg

Photo: Carol Rosegg

Before the clichés begin to pile on late in the first act, “West” opens with much promise. We meet Fannie (Brittany Bradford) and Sophie (Nikiya Mathis), two sisters who left the bustle of Memphis to start anew in Nicodemus, Kansas. In the wake of a free South, Nicodemus became an all-black haven for homesteaders looking for a better life without the racist gaze of their white neighbors. Also living in their modest but comfortable cabin (Marjorie Bradley Kellogg did the gorgeous, ligneous set) is Miss Leah (Brenda Presley), a feisty old lady always ready with a caustic quip or a yarn about her early years as a slave. Into their quiet life comes the third sister, Minnie (Keona Welch), with her hot-headed, elitist husband Frank (Michael Chenevert) in tow. A light-skinned mulatto, Frank was raised in a position of privilege and has been enjoying life, mostly among his white peers, as a published poet in London.  With his wife’s humble, dark-skinned ancestry on display in Kansas, Frank is forced to confront his own racial self-loathing, a process that ignites most of the play’s more histrionic episodes. A kindly neighbor (Edward O’Blenis) with a fancy for Sophie only complicates matters.

The cast is excellent, with perhaps the exception of O’Blenis whose line-readings always felt a touch wooden. Presley captivated the audience with her sassy and commanding performance, one reminiscent of Cecily Tyson’s Tony-winning turn in “A Trip To Bountiful,” while Bradford’s brazen Fannie held the show together wonderfully. Staged with unfussy finesse by Scott and beautifully accented by Stephen Strawbridge’s amber-hued, organic lighting (the two are reunited here after collaborating on Yale Rep’s visually-stunning “Native Son”), the first act unfurled slowly as we get to know these characters. Those early scenes had such wit and charm one could easily overlook missing some dialogue due to the actresses’ too-quiet microphones (sound designer Frederick Kennedy also provided the wailing, homespun harmonica ditties that accompanied the scene changes).

But once Frank and Minnie arrive in Nicodemus, Cleage’s script takes a detour into clunky melodrama. There’s Minnie’s mysterious black eye to be dealt with, along with the critical deeds to the family’s farm and an unpleasant pie that makes the one in “The Help” seem like child’s play. There’s a series of twists (most of which you could see from a country mile away) and an all-too-neat epilogue.

Perhaps to reign in the overripe elements in the second half, Scott keeps her direction even-keeled and her acting style natural and understated, which doesn’t always gel with the Tyler Perry-level tonal whiplash happening on stage. Like the assembled but perpetually unlit kindling in the cabin’s fireplace, “Flyin’ West” never quite achieves the friction to fully ignite, no matter how hokey some of the flames might have been.

All that’s true. From a purely dramaturgical standpoint, “Flyin’ West” becomes messy and hackneyed right at the point where it should start to soar. But there’s an undeniable charm to the production, perfectly housed in the historic, all-wood Playhouse theater, that makes it a wholly satisfying evening. This isn’t a three-star Michelin-rated meal (and the phrase “includes both natural and artificial flavors” might be found on the packaging) but it is honest-to-goodness soul food. It’s flavorful and filling and just a touch too salty. Would I have liked more nuance or originality? Sure, but there was plenty here for me to chew on.

“Flyin’ West” runs through June 16 at the Westport Country Playhouse. Photos by Carol Rosegg.

Noah Golden is an associate theater critic and columnist for OnStage based near New Haven, CT. Throughout his life, he has been involved in many facets of theater from acting to directing to playing drums in the pit. When not in or writing about theater, Noah is a video producer and editor. Twitter: @NoahTheGolden