One of Connecticut’s most venerable theatres, the Westport Playhouse, has been producing plays and musicals since 1931 and there’s no sign that they will be closing their doors any time soon. The theatre’s 2018 season just opened with a solid revival of Pearl Cleage’s historic drama, “Flyin’ West”. Under the able direction of Seret Scott, this is a crowd-pleasing entertainment.
“Flyin’ West” is set over 30 years after the Civil War (1898) when a small group of African-American women made the daunting decision to head West with the promise of opportunity for people willing to settle in a harsh and untested region. It is in the all-black town of Nicodemus, Kansas that homesteaders Sophie (Nikiya Mathis) and Fannie (Brittany Bradford) share a home on land that has suddenly drawn the attention of white speculators. They are determined to stay and Sophie also has plans to open a school for the town by spring. Fannie’s younger sister, Minnie (Keona Welch), pays a visit with her domineering husband, Frank (Michael Chenevert) while Fannie has embarked on a new romance with Will (Edward O’Blenis), a local man from Mexico. The elderly Miss Leah (Brenda Pressley, priceless) completes the cast of characters playing Fannie and Sophie’s feisty neighbor.
The four actresses are the reason to see “Flyin’ West”. Cleage’s careful delineation of character and motivation gives each woman a full-rounded identity and purpose. The acting could not be stronger with Pressley, fondly remembered in the Long Wharf Theatre’s 2016 production of “Having Our Say”, stealing every scene she can as the stubborn older woman who will not be silenced. She’s clearly an audience favorite even more so late in act two when she begins the preparation of a unique apple pie recipe. Director Seret Scott, whose brilliant staging of Yale Rep’s visionary “Native Son” last season was one of the year’s best theatre experiences, does very fine work here setting the action to a low simmer in act one until it graduates to full boil by curtain.
The rustic, intricately detailed scenic design looks absolutely right with Stephen Strawbridge’s lighting and Heidi Leigh Hanson’s costuming also drawing high marks. Although the play has a longer-than-necessary exposition and male characters lacking the dimension Cleage affords her females, “Flyin’ West”, which had a memorable production at Long Wharf way back in 1994, has been overdue for a revival. This is a good one.
“Flyin’ West” continues at the Westport Playhouse through June 16. For further information and
tickets call the theatre box office at 203.227.4177 or visit: www.westportplayhouse.org.
Tom Holehan is one of the founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: firstname.lastname@example.org. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.