Lewiston -- Emotional Exploration at Long Wharf Theatre

By Amy J. Barry

In 1804, Lewis and Clark were the first American explorers to make the perilous crossing westward from St. Louis, Missouri through the continental divide to the Pacific coast.

This early journey to claim land, and its implications for today -- as open space heads toward extinction with the arrival of each new cookie cutter housing complex or shopping center -- is the central metaphor in Lewiston, a new play by Sam Hunter. Hunter grew up next to the Lewis and Clark trail in Idaho -- and his previous plays (A Bright New Boise and The Whale) are all centered in small, isolated towns, USA.

But Lewiston, premiering at Long Wharf Theatre, is also the very personal journey of Alice (Randy Danson), a distant relative of the legendary Lewis, for whom the town she lives in is named, where she operates a cheap fireworks stand with her business partner/roommate/friend Connor (Martin Moran).

Alice is about to sell off this last piece of inherited land to a condo developer -- she gets a condo with a pool as part of the deal.

It is also a journey of deep significance for her estranged 24-year-old granddaughter Marnie (Arielle Goldman) who arrives from Seattle, where she lives on an urban farm, to persuade her grandmother to let her purchase the land in order to save the family legacy.

There is a fourth character in the play, the deceased daughter of Alice, mother of Marnie, whose voice (performed by Lucy Owen) at various points throughout the play, hauntingly describes her own trek through the great outdoors to replicate her ancestor’s journey, to find a sense of purpose in her life.

Marnie is an intelligent and angry young woman (a lethal combination) when she arrives with only a backpack and tent to set up camp on her grandmother’s land. She is angry about her mother’s death to suicide when she was a young child, her lousy relationship with her father, her lack of a relationship with her grandmother, and the loss of the family’s land, compounded by her grandmother’s refusal to sell her the final plot.

The two women duke it out and Danson and Goldman are well-matched in their roles of petulant granddaughter and stubborn grandmother before they ultimately come to a place of acceptance and an understanding that continuing a family’s physical legacy means nothing if it’s devoid of love and human connection.

It’s not completely clear what Connor’s role is in all of this, except as a referee between the two women. But he’s an interesting, likable character, performed with nuance by Moran, who is also searching for meaning, always compromising, ambiguous about his sexuality, and well aware of the absurdity of his situation.

There are bitingly funny moments, particularly as Marnie lights one cheesy firecracker/sparkler after another that anticlimactically fizzle out as soon as they start to gain momentum, not unlike the characters’ lives.

Hunter’s script under Eric Ting’s thoughtful direction successfully creates Alice’s and Marnie’s aching longing for a sense of place and continuity in their lives, nostalgia for something they never really had, romantic dreams and hopes for the future. And always painfully coloring their perspective is the mother/daughter who tried but never found what she was looking for, tragically taking her life as a result.

There are predictable as well as puzzling pieces that make up the play. As a whole it doesn’t quite gel, and the constant Lewis and Clark references are a bit overplayed.

The acting and interaction is strong overall and there are powerful and humorous moments throughout. But perhaps like the characters, it’s still a journey for its playwright to weave the underlying themes into a more cohesive whole.

Wilson Chin’s set successfully creates the feeling of the little fireworks shack literally in the middle of nowhere, complimented by Matthew Richards’ expressive night and day lighting. Brandon Wolcott’s sound design creates a palpable presence for Owen’s offstage voice, and Paloma Young’s costumes are well suited to each character’s personality and place in time.

Performances of Lewiston continue through May 1 at Long Wharf Theatre, 222 Sargent Dr., New Haven. Tickets available by calling the box office at 203-787-4282 or online at www.longwharf.org

This review appears in Shore Publishing community weeklies, and online at zip06.com

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