Chicago Theater Review: THE WAY WEST (Steppenwolf)

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by Lawrence Bommer on April 13, 2014

in Theater-Chicago


Zoe Perry (Manda), Ira Amyx (The Pizza Guy), and Caroline Neff (Meesh) in Steppenwolf's production of THE WAY WEST.After a brief show of compassion for life’s casualties and some welcome sympathy for the underdog in Good People and The Motherfucker with the Hat, Steppenwolf Theatre Company is back to a bad habit—amusing an audience by mugging poor slobs. An unwelcome world premiere, Mona Monsour’s two-act downer The Way West depicts, with little empathy, three sad-sack saps heading south in the West. California survivors of today’s hard times, low expectations, and the dysfunctional American Dream, a miserable mom–with her gung-ho gospel of gumption–and her luckless daughters never learn from their mistakes because each blunder is different from the last. How hilarious, Steppenwolf suggests, to watch these dead-end dames mess up—and aren’t you glad it’s not you?

Zoe Perry (Manda), Dierdre O'Conell (Mom), and Martha Lavey (Tress) in Steppenwolf's production of THE WAY WEST.The setting could be Stockton, California, the first American town to declare bankruptcy in a state that’s a proverbial last chance for desperate dreamers. Here the bankruptcy is much smaller: it’s merely Mom (plucky and doomed Deirdre O’Connell) and her cursed clan. She can’t manage money except to waste it on ridiculous get-rich schemes, such as the “magic water” scam that supposedly reduces height; it’s peddled by her addlepated friend Tress (Martha Lavey, Steppenwolf artistic director).

Zoe Perry (Manda) and Gabriel Ruiz (Manny) in Steppenwolf's production of THE WAY WESTMom’s feckless daughter Meesh (Caroline Neff as a surefire slacker) commits online fraud, is lumbered with a lousy boyfriend, and is busy at her one job–further draining her mother’s evaporating funds. Elder daughter Manda (Zoe Perry, too smart for her part), a grant-writer visiting from Chicago, is helpless to stop her mother’s tailspin; she soon has her own employment crisis complete with canceled credit cards. Manda has a brief hope for some security when she tries to poach an old boyfriend (Gabriel Ruiz) from his intended, but even as a home-wrecker she’s a failure. Perversely and repeatedly, these women can’t make a move without hurting themselves or each other.

Zoe Perry (Manda) and Gabriel Ruiz (Manny) in Steppenwolf's production of THE WAY WEST.A running–and increasingly sick–joke punctuates the pathetic proceedings. Throughout all the Job-like travails that The Way West merrily dumps on Mom (a car crash, house fire, her sudden paralysis, a collapsed garage, foreclosure, power cutoff, a pizza delivery they can’t afford), Mom continues to prattle about her intrepid Western ancestors and the perils they braved as the prairie made them tough, resourceful and resilient—everything this family is not. “Bring it on, life!” she screams—and, boy, does it ever! If you find delusion delightful, this is your laff-fest.

Gabriel Ruiz (Manny) and Deidre O'Conell (Mom) in Steppenwolf's production of THE WAY WEST.Even weirder, at the drop of a whim Mom breaks into stupid and sardonic songs (by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen), accompanied on guitars by her seemingly brainwashed offspring. Music is moot: By play’s end these three non-survivors are squatters verging on homelessness, reduced to stealing fruit from trees abandoned by their owners, sitting on a scorched lawn, and gazing toward imminent disaster. There’s no safety net to catch them. They’re just fucked. It’s like watching a real-life Whack-A-Mole game with people, not rodents, popping up to be slapped down. (The one sympathetic character here is the pizza delivery guy (Ira Amyx) who at least has a job and now just wants to be paid by these whining women.)

Of course, amid the gabfest Monsour condescends to suggest 2014’s dour economic context for the family’s failure—no promising frontier, just failure; a dispossessed Caroline Neff (Meesh) and Zoe Perry (Manda) in Steppenwolf's production of THE WAY WEST.subdivision; and the government’s inability to help, even assuming that these ruined “rugged individualists” could accept it. The Way West leaves no way out.

But the real blame in this mean show is very specific–and it’s on Mom. It’s way too easy for a prosperous Steppenwolf audience to ignore the shrinking of the middle class and simply dismiss these monumental mistake-makers for what they are in Amy Morton’s dogged staging: fierce females who fail, then bravely pick themselves up to fail again. Why bother and so what?

Caroline Neff (Meesh), Dierdre O'Conell (Mom), and Zoe Perry (Manda) in Steppenwolf's production of THE WAY WEST.

photos by Michael Brosilow

The Way West
Steppenwolf Theatre Company
Steppenwolf’s Downstairs Theatre, 1650 N Halsted St
scheduled to end on June 8, 2014
for tickets, call 312-335-1650 and

for info on this and other Chicago Theater, visit

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