'Way West' depicts tarnished lives in the Golden State

In Mona Mansour's "The Way West," which premiered this week at Steppenwolf Theatre, a Chicago grant writer informs her financially floundering mother and sister that she takes home about $4,000 per month. She's doing fine, she says, glossing over the $1,200 monthly minimum she pays on a pair of maxed-out credit cards.

"Everybody does it," she says.

Not everyone. Not my bank manager cousin, whose sharp intake of breath told me exactly what she thought of the character's foolhardy behavior. Not the audience, whose quiet gasps suggested they were similarly shocked. And certainly not the countless workers who during the recent recession saw their hours cut and their wages slashed, and who responded by doing with less, or doing without.

Punctuated by country-tinged songs and tall tales, and underscored by a kind of foreboding humor, Mansour's quirky dramedy examines optimism and self-delusion. It's also about irresponsible dreamers and the failed American dream. And it addresses the myth of American exceptionalism, which insists we are special simply because we were lucky enough to be born here.

"The Way West" is an ambitious play. And director Amy Morton's fast, fiercely acted production has several potent moments, including a memorable confrontation with a pizza delivery man. Unfortunately, the footing for "The Way West" isn't all that sound. No one really knows how to manage the tunes and tales, which chronicle (the usually tragic) westward expansion in grisly detail. As a result those interludes - performed by Deirdre O'Connell, Caroline Neff and Zoe Perry - pull us out of the story. What's more, they undercut the gravity of the precarious financial situation in which these women find themselves.

The action unfolds in a financially troubled city in California, home to Hollywood and high-tech, industries rooted in fantasy and the imagination. The city is unnamed, but it is modeled after Stockton, which in 2012 claimed the dubious honor of being the largest U.S. city to file for bankruptcy protection - although it ceded that title to Detroit in 2013.

In any case, the city is failing. Jobs are scarce. Emergency services are limited. And foreclosures have turned neighborhoods into ghost towns.

But one determined soul remains: Mom. Played by the fine, deliciously wry O'Connell, Mom lives in a formerly middle-class, now hopelessly cluttered home (detailed work by set designer Kevin Depinet) dominated by a sagging sofa and stacks of boxes that suggest someone was in the process of moving but never managed to make it out the door. Unpaid bills and receipts littering the kitchen table evidence her pending bankruptcy, about which she is unperturbed.

"We are fierce. We are solid. We fought to get here," says Mom. She tells her daughters (who share her predisposition for poor financial planning) stories of rugged pioneers who survived the westward journey to make it to California's promised land.

Mom's financial situation concerns oldest daughter Manda (a sharp, focused Perry), recently arrived from Chicago, who seeks advice from former flame Manny (Gabriel Ruiz), a slow-and-steady type of guy and onetime paralegal who is now a lawyer. Turns out Manda's financials are as troubled as her mother's. Less alarmed about the family's collapse is the intermittently employed, ever-resentful younger daughter Meesh (Neff, pitch-perfect as a sullen slacker), who in Manda's absence, has served as a lackadaisical caretaker to her ailing mother.

Manda learns the situation is worse than she imagined when she discovers her mother loaned $12,000 to would-be entrepreneur Tressa (Martha Lavey, Steppenwolf artistic director) to invest in a shady weight-loss business.

Tressa defends the investment, saying "you have to believe in something. You have to jump in the ring and risk everything."

That's an admirable attitude, except when you're risking other people's money. And her perfunctory justification blaming corrupt politicians (an easy target), feels hollow.

Things go from bad to worse, leaving them unable to scrape together $16 for a pizza. That's the point (as unsettling as it is compelling) when the family turns feral, taunting and shaming the Pizza Guy (Ira Amyx), a decent man doing his best to make a living at the only job he could find.

Apparently, the thought of getting a job - any job - never occurred to these women. By the end of the play, they're in full-on survival mode, struggling to survive in the promised land.

Manda (Zoe Perry), left, and her younger sister Meesh (Caroline Neff) menace the Pizza Guy (Ira Amyx) in Steppenwolf Theatre's “The Way West.” courtesy of Michael Brosilow
While her family's finances crumble, Manda (Zoe Perry) attempts to reconnect with her former boyfriend Manny (Gabriel Ruiz) in Steppenwolf Theatre's production of Mona Mansour's “The Way West,” directed by ensemble member Amy Morton. courtesy of Michael Brosilow

“The Way West”

★ ★

Location: Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St., Chicago, (312) 335-1650,

Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 3 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday through June 8. Also 2 p.m. May 14, 21, 28 and 1:30 p.m. May 25. No shows May 3. No 7:30 p.m. shows May 18, 25, June 1 and 8

Running time: One hour, 50 minutes, with intermission

Tickets: $20-$78

Parking: Metered street parking; $10 at the Steppenwolf garage

Rating: For adults; contains mature themes and language

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