By Karen Isaacs
“Flyin’ West” which is now at Westport Country Playhouse through June 16, is a play you want to like. After all playwright Pearl Cleage is telling an inspiring story of Nicodemus, Kansas a town established by African-Americans following the Civil War – many were slaves who traveled west and became homesteaders, finally able to own their land.
Even more inspiring is that some of these people were women who came alone or with other women and succeeded in taming the prairie.
In the play, we have four women and two men. Miss Leah is a former slave who after her husband died, was an early settler. She survived and now is staying for a while with two other women. Miss Leah is the voice of remembrance; she talks of the multiple children she had as a slave that were sold within days of birth and the children she later had that all died.
She is staying with two sisters: Sophie is the older and in charge. She is a no-nonsense woman who is proud to own her land and manage the property. At the beginning (1898), she is upset because while speculators have arrived and are making offers to buy the land from the settlers. She wants to keep Nicodemus a black community.
Fanny, her younger sister, is gentler and sweeter. She is being quietly courted by Wil Parish.
Into this mix arrives the youngest sister, Minnie who had married and has been living in London. Her husband, Frank Charles, is from New Orleans and is of mixed race; he is light enough to pass as white. His self-hatred is palable.
While the speculators are important to the plot, they are not the central conflict of the play. It is Frank who provides the conflict; he needs money and when the two older sisters give Minnie a deed to one-third of the land on her 21st birthday, he sees his chance.
Cleage has written a play that verges on melodrama, right down to the curtain line ending the first act. Director Seret Scott has intensified the melodramatic elements of the play rather than down-playing them.
Frank, played by Michael Chenevert is the villain of the piece. As written, he has few redeeming qualities though it is possible to understand his anger and even his disdain for blacks. But as directed by Scott, he is the typical melodrama villain. It is easy to picture him with a top hat and cape and mustache that all the silent film villains had. He is just evil. This in many ways unbalances the play though you are hoping that he does not succeed. It would be better if it were easier to comprehend his feelings.
In the same way, the other characters become two rather than three dimensional. Fanny, played by Brittany Bradford seems to be much too sweet and naïve for a woman in her 20s who has been mainly raised on the prairie. It is as though she is the author’s way of presenting the “traditional” view of women and marriage.
The other characters are the same – more stereotype and less developed as fully rounded people. In no case do you see complexity and this is a failing of the play intensified by the direction.
Brenda Pressley does the best job as Miss Leah; she does seem to present various aspects of the woman. Nikiya Matthis is able to bring out some of Sophie’s personality but again, the playwright hasn’t given her a real person to portray.
Marjorie Bradley Kellogg has created a wonderful set of the house and surrounding land and Stephen Strawbridge’s lighting sets the mood and time.
The story of Nicodemus, Kansas is an aspiring one that is too little known. I just wish that “Flyin’ West” told that story better.
For tickets visit Westport Playhouseor call 888-927-7529.