Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

A Smart, Stimulating Production of
Ambition Facing West

Also see Richard's review of The Merry Widow and The Anthony Newley Project

TheatreWorks is presenting the California premiere of Anthony Clarvoe's Ambition Facing West, running through February 11th at the Mountain View Performing Arts Center. This is a delightfully evocative exploration of the immigrant experience based on the playwright's own family's story of leaving Croatia in the early 1900s for America. The play flows effortlessly, crisscrossing and overlapping from 1910s Croatia to Wyoming 1942 to Japan in the 1980s, smoothly weaving together the narratives of three generations of this family.

The descendants of this family share the stage with their ancestors, and we hear interesting vignettes of their lives, presented concurrently. Top flight actors make this drama a stimulating evening of theater. There are outstanding scenes of the Croatian boy Stipan (Cole Smith) being taught about Jason and the Argonauts by Father Luka (Dan Hiatt), and how a slick Croatian-American recruiter for an American company convinces the young lad to come to America, much to the consternation of his mother Marija (Julia Brother).

Thirty years later we see the adult Stipan (Michael Santo), now a Union organizer in the mines of Wyoming, convincing his teenaged daughter Alma (Anna Bullard) to leave the nest to purse her inquisitiveness and aspirations. The father says, "only a vegetable has roots" when Alma refuses to leave her invalid mother Josephina (Lynne Soffer). The young girl grows up to be a globe-trotting fixer of business (Julia Brothers) with a son (Patrick Alparone) who first is a jittery teenager then a Zen-centered, calm young man.

Ambition Facing West contains much humor and wisdom. The scenes between the adult Alma and her son are full of wit, especially their dialogue about the mother being a lapsed Catholic.

Director Kent Nicholson gracefully maneuvers the characters back and forth in time. Each actor plays two parts in this family history. Julia Brothers (Salome, Long Christmas Ride Home, Moving Right Along) gives a fascinating performance as both Marija, a strong mother who tries to stop her son from going to America, and Alma, a modern day business woman in 1980s Japan trying to talk to her son out of becoming a Zen Buddhist.

Michael Santo (God of Hell) gives a bravura performance as Ivo, the ex-Croatian immigrant recruiter getting young men to come to "the land of opportunity," and the adult Stipan who is the father of the young girl about to leave the perch. Anna Bullard (Killer Joe, The Hooper Collection) is wonderful as Miss Adamic who wants to leave Croatia and as an unfathomable young Alma.

Dan Hiatt (A Christmas Story, The Rivals, Happy End) is excellent as the frustrated priest Father Luka, trying to keep young Stipan from leaving his home, and he plays Eugene in the 1980s as a laid-back gay American in Japan. Patrick Alparone (his first appearance at TheatreWorks) gives a great performance as Joey, going from an edgy young teen age to a calm Zen Buddhist acolyte.

Cole Smith (his first appearance at TheatreWorks) is first-rate as young Stipan, and he plays Jim, Alma's boyfriend in the 1940s, who is about to join the Air Force. Lynne Soffer (has appeared in almost every regional theatre in the area) is very good as the polio-afflicted mother of Alma.

Mikiko Uesugi has designed an interesting set on an almost bare stage with a wooden platform in the center of a harshly beautiful rock garden that serves as a Balkan pier in the 1910s, a 1940s Wyoming home, and a Zen center in the 1980s. Steven B Mannshardt's lighting is exceptional in the background, changing hues for each era of the drama. Costumes by Taisia Nikonishchenko reflect the period of time.

Ambition Facing West plays through February 11 at the Mountain View Performing Arts Center, 500 Castro Street, Mountain View. For tickets, call 650-903-6000 or visit

TheatreWorks' next production will be Joanna McClelland Glass's Trying starring Ken Ruda, opening on March 7 and running through April 1 at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto. The company is also presenting a "standard" version of Stephen Sondheim's Merrily We Roll Along April 4th through April 29th at the Mountain View Performing Arts Center.

Photo: David Allen

Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema

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