For the past decade, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s American Revolutions program has commissioned playwrights to examine turning points in U.S. history. Playwright Idris Goodwin has heeded the call with his new play, The Way the Mountain Moved, a revisionist look at a supposedly well-known piece of American history: how the West was won.
Specifically, The Way the Mountain Moved — which continues through October 28 — is set in Utah in the 1850s. The cast of characters is made up primarily of people who have long been ignored by the American Western: There are African-American Mormons (yes, they exist), Mexican immigrants, single women and their daughters, Native Americans. With this play, Goodwin, OSF, and director May Adrales point out the hypocrisy inherent in American Westerns (not to mention in this country, in general), with their singular focus on the white cowboy as hero, when we all know the white cowboy character (and, in fact, our country) were built upon the backs of people of color and women, so long and largely ignored.
As is so often the case at OSF, the performances here are incredible – particularly Christiana Clark and Rodney Gardiner as Martha and Orson, the African-American Mormons who fight an internal battle between their faith and their own inherent belief in themselves and their equality. Rex Young is also strong as an idealistic scientist who believes in doing what’s right, but all the while is working for the very government that is tearing everyone else’s lives apart. Al Espinosa, Sara Bruner, and Maddy Fleming also stand out, respectively, as a Mexican citizen who isn’t sure which side he’s on and a mother and daughter who have lost nearly everything and are fighting for the little they have left.
This is a beautifully written play. It’s suspenseful – you’ll find yourselves waiting for and wondering about how these interconnected stories will come together. It’s powerful – Orson and Martha’s storyline will especially make you think (and rethink) long after you have left the theater. It’s relevant – the role of guns in America is, of course, still a huge source of conflict today, and this play takes a bleak look at our long relationship with those weapons.
Sara Ryung Clement’s smart, efficient scenic design uses every inch of the Thomas Theatre to bring vast swaths of the American frontier to life. Screens projecting both text and backdrops on all four walls help. Deborah M. Dryden’s costumes set us right down in the time and place of the play, and then tell us more about each character before he or she even speaks: We know Young’s George is from a different class and place than Espinosa’s Luis before we know much else about them.
This is not a perfect play or production, however. The lighting is a little dark at times, giving the false impression that every scene takes place at night. And the ending is both abrupt, unexpected, and unsatisfying, with the last few moments of the play spent on characters we haven’t yet gotten to know. These are important characters, Kusavi (Shyla Lefner) and Chuxa (Jen Olivares), Native Americans who represent the rightful owners of the West. But the messages they carry would hit home harder if the audience had time to develop a connection to them like we have with the other characters.
Unlike Goodwin’s And in this Corner: Cassius Clay, which Oregon Children’s Theatre put on a superb production of earlier this year, The Way the Mountain Moved doesn’t end or begin with a solid position: You won’t walk out of this play knowing what the playwright and director wanted you to think, which can be confusing and a little disturbing, but might ultimately be a good thing.
This play gives us a new way of looking at our mythic stories that also asks us to reassess the world we live in, and how we got here. Audience members who believe the Wild West was really won the way it’s depicted in John Wayne films might see their history a little differently. Some audience members who have never seen the role people like them played in this time period might leave feeling empowered and vindicated. Others might leave without any earth-shattering changes, but with questions to ponder or answers to seek. If it makes us think about our world in a new way, the play has done important work.