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Welcome to The Way West

by Martha Lavey

We first read The Way West by Mona Mansour as we were >searching for plays for last season’s First Look Repertory of New Work. The play so struck us that we moved it to our consideration of plays for our 2013/14 season. I think what most moved us about The Way West—which is a curious form: a play with songs, a spiky humor, and a dead-serious theme—is its relevance to how we live now. We knew Mona’s work from the plays she has written about her own Middle Eastern background: The Hour of Feeling and Urge for Going. These previous works revealed a scholarly and poetic bent that was intriguing and unique.
The Way West is a departure from those previous plays both in its form and its tone. The Way West has an irreverent and jocular tone, but like those earlier plays, it is an interrogation of personal responsibility within a larger cultural frame.
The play is set in California, our country’s western edge, in a town that has suffered economic collapse—think Stockton, California: the first American city to declare bankruptcy. California lives large in the American imagination—the farthest destination in the American quest to “Go West!” to the Land of Opportunity. California is a place where people go to remake themselves, to strike gold, to escape, to make it big. Of course, the reality of California is various and encompasses a wide variety of lives and terrains, but our imagination of California as a place of the new, the novel, the sunny and shiny, is vivid.
It is especially vivid to Mom as an image of the great pioneering fortitude of the American spirit. She tells tales of our ancestors and breaks into spontaneous song to encourage herself and her daughters to overcome whatever adversity they encounter in their present lives. Mom herself is in the middle of bankruptcy (about which she seems oblivious). Her younger daughter, Meesh, who has been living near and with her mom for years, has acclimated to Mom’s declining financial and physical health and has adopted similar coping strategies—marginally employed, adaptive to scarcity and making do on diminishing resources. When the older daughter, Manda, comes onto the scene with a mission to help her mother sort out her financial situation, Mom’s situation comes under new scrutiny.
Manda’s life in Chicago seems, at least on the surface, to be a successful one. She is a grant writer for a not-for-profit—a job that seems a little inscrutable to Mom and Meesh—but she seems to be managing to go on vacations and get fancy haircuts and in general, she’s “making it.” She is appalled by Mom’s and Meesh’s blithe refusal to see the precariousness of their own situation. That the tenuousness of her own life—supported by her liberal use of credit cards to stay solvent—is invisible to her is a central irony of the play. Manda is convinced that her diminishing resources are balanced against her “potential.” In the ledger sheet of her life, she sees the straitened resources of her present circumstances as a temporary illusion against the reality of what she sees as the unlimited potential of her talents. Manda can’t see how her own mindset mimes that of her mom’s. She is the stand-in for all of us who are living presentable but perhaps unsupportable lives.
I think Mona is asking us to look more closely at our American myth of manifest destiny, which is fueled by an image that Americans possess special virtues that make our situation exceptional. We are, in this narrative, destined to succeed, destined to expand, destined to overcome all adversity to achieving our prosperous future. This narrative—central to our American identity—can make us immune to the idea that we can fail even when, like Mom and Meesh (and ultimately Manda) we are in the midst of lives that are unsustainable. And, I think, Mona is suggesting that we have reached the end of the fantasy: we have reached the outermost western edge of expansion and arrived in the new California—land of the housing collapse and high unemployment. The new West evoked in the play is Seattle, home of Microsoft—our tech-driven future that has made the expertise of so many Americans obsolete.
Mona has put her finger on the huge cultural shift from a manufacturing economy to an information economy that has left so many Americans behind. The story of the housing crash, the obsolescence of a wide swath of the American workforce, and the fragility of our credit economy are all embodied in the play. That Mona has managed to take on these issues in a sort of comical and sideways manner is a part of the play’s charm. We laugh at the transparent illusions of Mom and Meesh until we realize, like Manda, that their refusal to recognize the dire entailments of their optimism and cheer are ones we collectively share. America is destined for greatness and we’re all headed toward something better. Right? Steppenwolf Artistic Director Martha Lavey