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The Oregon Trail

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - January 23, 2017

Liba Vaynberg with Jimmy King,
Emily Louise Perkins, and Laura Ramadei
Photo by Jeremy Daniel

No one would argue that it's far better to learn about cholera from a computer game than from actually dying from it, and if you're on the younger side of middle-aged (or, perhaps, on the high side of side of early adulthood) that's probably what happened. The Oregon Trail, after all, was one of the earliest titles for the burgeoning home computer industry that managed to be both educational and fun. Whether you preferred puzzling out resource-management quandaries, shooting bears in the wilderness, or caulking your wagon and sailing it down the Columbia River, there was something for you as you made the historic trek—provided you didn't die of, well, you know.

Bekah Brunstetter's new play for Fault Line Theatre at the WP Theatre pays clear and loving homage to the game it's titled after, its first action being to transport us back to the sepia-tinted year of 1997, when a plain and downbeat 12-year-old girl named Jane (Liba Vaynberg) plays it in the computer lab while waiting for her mom to pick her up from school. And, as we all did once upon a time, she envisions herself and those she knows, including her older and more "together" sister Mary Anne (Laura Ramadei) and Billy (Juan Arturo), the cute boy she has a not-so-secret crush on, traversing the trails, fording the rivers, and discovering exciting surprises as she explores the uncharted territory on the opposite side of the Missouri River.

Sadly, what comes next is rather less romantic. Jane pads through the rest of school, completes a useless major at college, and finds herself marooned in her mid-20s, her mood still muffled and with no boyfriend or career prospects, so that there's not much to do but seek refuge with her sister while she figures out what should come next. And because the path of life is rarely as linear or as well marked as that from Independence to Willamette, she ends up occupying that territory far longer than she intends—or that her already-fractured relationship with Mary Anne can stand. At least now that a certain beloved game from her youth is now online, she can fill her days—although the narrator seems to be describing a wholly different, if more realistic, trek than once he did. ("What would you like to do? You may: 1. Continue on the trail. 2. Stop and rest. 3. Watch Extreme Makeover Home Edition, the one where half the family¬ís in wheelchairs so they build lots of ramps and you cry.")

Brunstetter fills most of the 90-minute running time by juxtaposing the two very different voyages of our Jane and the one from 170 years ago (Emily Louise Perkins), who is traversing the country with her own version of Mary Ann and her enterprising widower father (Jimmy King), which unfold on the two opposing ends of the stage. (The set, split between realistic-modern and wagon-train kitsch, is by Tristan Jeffers.) Her goal seems to be to underscore how concepts of survival shift across the generations, and how our evolving needs create new woes that are no less difficult to overcome than older ones, even if they're objectively less life-threatening.

But present-day Jane is not exactly just a thin-skinned snowflake. There are clues that she is, in fact, afflicted with clinical depression, and that her actions are not entirely within her own control. If that's true, Brunstetter's analogy breaks down: Depression is no less a disease than typhoid fever, even if its symptoms are considerably different, and the obstacles Jane faces both internally and externally are deserving of more serious treatment than the playwright gives them. If Jane is not suffering from a genuine medical condition, the suggestion otherwise muddies the waters too much for the rest of the play to make sense; when the two Janes meet, which of course they must, it's not a satisfying explanation for the bond they so obviously share.

There's much that's good about The Oregon Trail. Geordie Broadwater's staging is incisive, funny, and quick-moving. The physical production, which also includes period-clashing costumes by Izzy Fields, sprightly lights by John Eckert, and clever sound by Chad Raines, is spot-on for both eras. And with the exception of Arturo, who lays on Billy's adolescent charm a bit too thick, the acting is well pitched with the writing. Particularly good is Ramadei, who accomplishes the difficult task of making both Mary Annes feel as though they've been carved from the same chunk of contemporaneity, but Vaynberg and Perkins limn no shortage of sincerity or psychological reality from two women who are each tasked with blazing different kinds of trails. And Craig Wesley Divino, as the ever-nagging voice of the game, is a deadpan hoot.

Still, Brunstetter's writing and conceptualization could be sharper, and, as witty as the references to it are, the game is more of a diversionary tactic than a fully integrated storytelling mechanism. Too often, particularly in the second half, the implication is that Jane's choices don't matter, and she's careening toward certain disaster regardless of which option she picks. That is sometimes true of life, especially as we get older and fall into ruts and routines that make diverging from the well-traveled road a challenge if not an impossibility. But for Brunstetter's heroine, the meaning of that helplessness—and thus the play that's based on it—is earth-shakingly different depending on what her malady actually is.

As it is, we're not sure Brunstetter even knows—and that's a problem the show never overcomes. Neither Jane knows where her journey is taking her, but must press on anyway—and that attitude, though proper for pioneers, is one playwrights are better off avoiding like dysentery.

The Oregon Trail
Through February 12
WP Theater, 2162 Broadway at 76th Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix