The Stock of the West
The West lives in my bones. Born in Montana, bred in Eastern Washington state, and coming of age in and around Seattle, I feel like, subconsciously, I view most experiences in my life as the early pioneers did; what’s out there is unknown and unknowable so pushing forward is the only direction to travel. In the West it is less about pedigree and more about ‘stock’ and what your ‘stock’ has learned from the stories of the triumphs and tribulations of those before them. So, when Mom (Deirdre O’Connell) said “Sometimes when things are bad, you do best not to realize what is the reality of the situation. That’s prairie wisdom,” in The Way West I chuckled loudly to myself.
The Way West by Mona Monsour (at Labyrinth Theater Company) follows Mom as she files for bankruptcy with the help of her two bickering daughters, Manda and Meesh (Anna O’Donoghue and Nadia Bowers), in a desolate California town directly on the heels of the last financial crisis. Other characters float in and out of the story, mostly serving as tangible examples of ‘prairie wisdom’. They highlight the hope middle Americans had when the money was good and the subsequent devastation and desperation that swept through when the money disappeared.
It would be easy for the tone of a play with this subject matter to feel heavy and forlorn, but one of the hallmarks of the production is that it feels, more often than not, the exact opposite of that. In a play largely about storytelling, Mom greets every set-back, every prod at her finances and the way she takes care of herself, every snide daughter remark at her outlook with a new tale of a different enterprising pioneer. While not every story she tells has a happy ending, they are told with all the warmth and wisdom Mom possesses and, occasionally, with some visual aids and prairie songs. O’Connell handles these often gruesome stories with such vulnerability and beauty that, in those moments, everything else melts away into the plains scene visible through the windows of Mom’s deteriorating living room. While her often begrudging daughters mostly don’t buy Mom’s particular brand of (prairie) optimism, by the end it feels as though they start to understand the necessity of the world their mother occupies.
Because it is, after all, a story of survival. Mom is losing everything: her financial autonomy, her house, her health. One daughter, Meesh (O’Donoghue), is facing the scary consequences of some ill-fated business ventures. The other daughter, Manda (Bowers), arguably the most stable character at the beginning of the play, falls victim to her hubris and complacency. The other characters that appear also watch the balloons of possibility float just out of their reach. These characters are not as developed as Mom and her daughters, but all serve to remind the audience that very few people (beyond the 1%) emerged unscathed from the last financial crash.
Shortly before the play draws to a close and as they are all fighting their desolation, Mom and her daughters erupt into a cathartic dance complete with stomping, chanting, and drumming. That moment is beautiful and primal, communing with the centuries of pioneer ghosts present in this play. It is stopped, all too abruptly, by Manda who insists that her mother is actually nothing like the pioneers. Manda, in an effort to work through her own personal demons, perpetrates a reality check, a momentary crash in optimism. But, in this case, and all the pioneers’ cases for hundreds of years, the resolution of Mom’s survival and hope for her daughters wins. They stare out into the audience, the fear of the unknown palpable. Beyond the audience, however, is the horizon and the sense that forward movement is the only option.