From John Wayne movies to the plays of Sam Shepard, the story of the American West has always been presented as a distinctly male experience. Cowboys and Indians, outlaws and frontiersman, ranchers and prospectors, oil tycoons and cattle barons: the history of film, theater and literature is littered with strong men who stare unflinchingly into the face of adversity.
So when Mona Mansour’s play “The Way West” came across my desk, I instantly fell in love with its tough matriarch and her equally scrappy daughters as they try to survive in a modern-day California where survival is no less perilous for them than it was for their pioneer forefathers (and foremothers). As one of the few female artistic directors in New York City, I felt it was important to bring this ferociously funny and beautifully observant play about three defiantly strong women to our stage at Labyrinth.
Both poignant and hilarious, this play focuses on a charismatically fierce woman (brilliantly portrayed by Deirdre O’Connell) who is determined to keep her head above water even if her house, health and finances have seen better days. Willfully optimistic, she refuses to let things get her down — even if her can-do spirit is driving her poor daughters to distraction. To buoy her own spirits (and her daughters) she regales them with brutally dark comic tales of strong pioneer women who survived great odds to reach the promised land of California during America’s great westward expansion. But the more they relive the glory of the past, the more the present circumstances start to spiral out of their control.
It’s a heartbreaking journey, and watching these women struggle to survive every night reminds me of how precarious life can be even in our own supposedly modern and advanced society. The American Dream may be fading, but watching these women remain defiantly hopeful in the face of impossible odds is a testament to the human condition. Being able to tell this story written by a female playwright and featuring three strong female leads has been one of the highlights of my tenure as Labyrinth Theater Company’s artistic director. It’s a story I truly believe everyone should see.
With fine ensemble acting and exquisitely crafted storytelling, you won’t want to miss “The Way West.” Performances run at the Bank Street Theater from now until April 10. I hope you’ll come along with me on this fierce and funny journey into the America experience.
Mimi O’Donnell is the Artistic Director of Labyrinth Theater Company the award-winning, nationally renowned theater company in New York City.