Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
The story, which runs from 1925 through 1952, centers on the vast Reata Ranch owned by the Benedict family, beginning with the barbecue where Jordan Benedict (Lewis Cleale), known as Bick, introduces his eastern wife Leslie (Betsy Morgan) to his life in Texas. Leslie, educated and sheltered, was raised on a horse farm in Virginia, so she has to get used to the vast dry expanses of the ranchand the impoverished Mexican laborers who make life comfortable for the Benedict family.
LaChiusa's score is rangy and more accessible than much of his work, embodying the many facets of the story and its characters: Mexican folk melodies, western swing, and 1950s rockabilly all take their turns. The lyrics have a plain-spoken poetry about them.
Director Jonathan Butterell and choreographer Ernesto Alonso Palma continue the theme of wide expanses with an almost bare stage. Dane Laffrey's scenic design mostly consists of pieces of furniture, with one ladder up to a platform, and the orchestra conducted by Chris Fenwick sits on a ledge over the playing area. Japhy Weideman's lighting design and Matt Rowe's sound design add to the portrait of a beautiful yet desolate landscape.
While Morgan gives a heartfelt performance as a woman of privilege learning about the rougher side of life, and Cleale is warmly empathetic, the most galvanizing performer in the cast is Ashley Robinson as Jett Rink, the bitter ranch hand who strikes oil and uses his wealth to indulge his resentment of the Benedicts. His threatening swagger animates his every scene and song.
Other standouts in the cast are Judy Blazer as Bick's older sister, who never quite gets past her distrust of the "outsider" her brother married; Katie Thompson as the neighboring rancher Vashti, who always thought she would marry Bick; John Dossett, underused as wise Uncle Bawley; and Jessica Grové as Bick and Leslie's spunky daughter.