Westward ho!

BETC gets ambitious

Michael Ensminger

When is a meditation really an illustration? Though I don’t believe playwright Anthony Clarvoe or the Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company (BETC) set out to answer, or necessarily even pose, that question with Ambition Facing West, BETC’s production of this award-winning play presents itself as a meditation on the nature of family but is truly more of an expertly crafted illustration of one family’s evolution.

Clarvoe’s own family immigrated from Croatia, and that history clearly informs Ambition Facing West. Given the current debate regarding immigration in the United States, many will view the play as a commentary on the topic. To me, that is an agenda-driven Rorschach response, albeit a potentially subconscious one, to what is really a theatrical watercolor, a beautiful rendering of the cyclical nature of relationships.

Thanks to the set design by Tina Anderson, Ambition Facing West commands the audience’s attention before the actor’s even take the stage. There is no curtain in the Dairy’s East Theatre, so the stage is laid bare for audience members taking their seats. The downstage expanse is covered in gravel. Upstage consists of a wooden-slatted platform surrounding a small pool of still water. The backstage wall holds a collection of white rectangles of various sizes. Reminiscent of the memorable set for the Avenue Theatre’s 2004 production of Metamorphoses, Ambition Facing West’s set is elementally evocative and grabs the viewer’s attention and interest immediately. 

Told in the same interweaved, temporally overlapped fashion as Pulp Fiction, Ambition Facing West takes place in Croatia in 1910, Wyoming in the 1940s and Japan in the 1980s. The play jumps from one time frame to the next from scene to scene, and often characters from two different eras share the stage. While they can’t interact with their past or future selves, they seem to be hauntingly aware of them.

In Croatia, a teenage boy named Stipan (John Hauser) yearns to seek his fortunes in America. Though his mother, Marija (Haley Johnson) loathes the idea and the local priest, Father Luka (Casey Andree), encourages him to stay in his homeland, Stipan’s discussions with Ivo (Chris Kendall), an older Croatian just returned from the U.S., intensify his longing to reach the “land of opportunity.” 

Thirty years later in Wyoming, Stipan (now played by Chris Kendall) and his wife, Josephina (Karen LaMoureaux), raise their teenage daughter, Alma (Adrian Egolf). Against the backdrop of World War II, Alma seeks to understand her family’s history and plot a course for her future.

In 1980s Japan, Alma (now played by Haley Johnson) is a businesswoman struggling with Japanese culture and to connect with her own teenage son, Joey (Benjamin Bonenfant). As the fidgety, Game Boy-addicted Joey begins to embrace Zen Buddhism, Alma must decide whether to stay by his side or follow her work further West.

If BETC’s Ambition Facing West were a film, it would be considered Oscar bait, and rightly so as I could see it earning any number of awards. Tina Anderson’s set, a character in and of itself, is complemented by Andrew Metzroth’s lighting design, which uses the white rectangles to great effect. Matthew Fischer’s sound design, which is equally understated and effective, alternately sets the tone and embellishes it.

Haley Johnson, who impressed me in the otherwise execrable A Lie of the Mind earlier this year, brings equally grounded credibility to both her stern 1910 Croatian mother and her urbane 1980s one. As always, Chris Kendall delivers a naturalistic performance seemingly effortlessly. And LaMoureaux’s and Egolf’s portrayals are so assured they make you wish that their supportive roles could be expanded. While demonstrating excellent facility for comedy — often from offstage — LaMoureaux also soars in one intensely emotional scene in which she elucidates on the nature of pain to Egolf’s overwrought teenager.

Aided by dialect coach Tamara Meneghini, the actors’ accents are quite credible, particularly when they are playing the Croatian and Italian characters.

At the center of all this goodness is director Stephen Weitz. An accomplished actor in his own right, over the past few years Weitz has begun spending more time behind the scenes and less of it onstage. Ambition Facing West is incontrovertible evidence of his continued growth in the director’s chair. 

Ambition Facing West is first-class theatre. Living up to BETC’s promise, it is indeed a wonderful story wonderfully told. With it, BETC proves once again to be one of the top tier theatre companies not just in Boulder but anywhere.