Where: Steppenwolf Theatre Company, Downstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St.
When: through June 8
By ANNE SPISELMAN
To some extent, we each create the myth of our life that helps us make it through the day, and we assume that this is a relatively healthy — or at least harmless — activity. Mona Mansour’s “The Way West,” which is enjoying a well-acted world premiere directed by Amy Morton at Steppenwolf Theatre, explores the dark side and potentially disastrous consequences of this modus operandi.
The myth of the American West permeates this absurdist tragicomedy in the person of Mom (Deirdre O’Connell), who is in dire financial and physical straits but so divorced from reality that when her impending bankruptcy is discussed, she says it’s alright because she’s already stopped paying her bills. Instead of confronting the situation and imminent loss of her house, she tells harrowing stories and sings songs about the hardy wagon-train pioneers who faced overwhelming odds and overcame incredible hardships to travel to California. The underlying message is that they ultimately prevailed because they were somehow superior — in other words, manifest destiny.
Mom’s audience — and accompanists on guitar — are her two daughters, Michelle and Amanda, or Meesh and Manda. Meesh (Caroline Neff), the self-appointed “caregiver,” maintains a tenuous existence with various schemes, among them using Mom’s credit card (unbeknownst to Mom) to buy $3,500 worth of Elizabeth Arden skin cream to resell on eBay. Manda (Zoe Perry), the supposedly more responsible one, has come home from Chicago to see Mom through the crisis, but beneath her composed surface is a ready-to-crash house of cards — overextended credit cards, that is, and a habit of living beyond her means based on what she views as her employment “potential.”
Escalating tension between self-righteous Manda and resentful Meesh fuels the sometimes funny arguments, as Mom alternates between defending herself, taking sides in the fray and trying to smooth ruffled feathers. An important part of her self-image is that she regards herself as a good person, which is either a reason or an excuse for her reduced circumstances. One example is her investment (the extent of which emerges gradually) in the spa that her aging-hippie friend Tress (Martha Lavey) plans to open to treat clients by wrapping them in Saran Wrap and sprinkling them with magic water.
As a kind of normative figure and suggestion of what might have been, Mansour throws in Manny (Gabriel Ruiz), Manda’s old flame who’s engaged to someone else but obviously still has a thing for her. He visits to try to give Mom financial advice to little avail, but his answer to Manda’s question about why he never asked her to marry him is one of the evening’s saddest, most ironic moments.
While Mansour, Morton and the ensemble keep the barbs flying and the tone comparatively light in the first act, the disasters start to pile up — and the songs virtually disappear — in the second. Mom’s limbs start giving out on her and, though she claims this is no big deal, it’s arguably the cause of a small fire that, mistakenly fanned by the girls, leaves the couch and living room in ruins. The unseen garage collapses with a thud, and Meesh declares it’s because her car, having been hit by Mom and removed, no longer is there to hold the structure up. We also learn that the once middle-class neighborhood is abandoned and jackal-infested, the result of a California economic downturn or mortgage debacle, no doubt.
Adding insult to injury near the end is a poignant yet biting scene in which a pizza delivery guy (Ira Amyx) arrives with a pizza no one admits to ordering — and though the women are desperately hungry, no one has the money to pay him. The tug of war that ensues, both verbal and actual, brings home the realities of the cold, cruel world with which these women are ill-equipped to cope.
One thing Mansour doesn’t do in “The Way West” is assign blame. Are Mom, Meesh and Manda victims of the collapse of the American Dream or are they responsible for their own failures? The answer may be some of both, but their multiple delusions and denials suggest that they need to make some serious changes in the way they see themselves and deal with the world, if it’s not already too late.