I’m George Walker for WFIU Arts
“The Oregon Trail, Wikipedia tells us, is a 2,170-mile (3,490 km) historic East–West, large-wheeled wagon route and emigrant trail in the United States that connected the Missouri River to valleys in Oregon.”
It’s also an early video game released in 1974. Even in the 1990s it was in short supply and high demand. The Monroe County Public Library had a single copy and children; one of my sons included, had to line up and sign in to play it. It’s the inspiration and the spine of the Bloomington Playwrights Project’s current offering.
The Oregon Trail is Bekah Brunstetter’s cleverly managed story of Now Jane’s journey from adolescent funk and angst through adult depression to a tentative resilience. The story begins with a twelve year old Now Jane idly playing the computer game, Oregon Trail. The voice that we hear with choices seems real and reasonable enough, though it later gets quite snarky. Billy, a senior athlete wanders by. He’s clearly more interested in Jane’s older sister Mary Ann, but Jane tries a quick kiss that ends in embarrassment for both. She’ll make a similar mistake with him later.
Now Jane’s game comes to life in 1848 with Clancy a resolute father, Mary Ann a logical older daughter and Then Jane. Then Jane is a creatively imaged depressed counterpart of Now Jane. She’s sad at the loss of her mother, mournful over the loss of her cow, and convinced that stuck in Missouri is the place to be. It’s only her father Clancy’s firm insistence that forces her onto the trail.
Now Jane makes it through high school, the trauma of choosing a major, a first job, and being laid off. Her older sister Mary Ann is a divorced hard working nurse and Now Jane retreats to depressed torpor on her couch. It’s during this time that Now Jane hooks up again with Billy for that similar mistake.
Meanwhile, Then Jane and her family are on the trail. It’s a tough trek. With plenty of hardships. A dramatically presented disastrous crossing of the Platte River wreaks parts of the wagon. There are shortages and hardships. Clancy the father and Mary Ann the sister sicken and die. Then Jane, who’s only gradually becoming a more resolute trouper, is left alone.
Meanwhile, Now Jane’s sister, at the end of her patience drags her depressed younger sister out for a healing circle ritual. I’m not sure where Mary Ann who delights in making lists and organizing her closet came to this, but so be it. In the circle the suspicious and defensive Now Jane, meets the suicidal Then Jane and wrests her knife away. Then Jane, the family forbearer, Now Jane and sister Mary Ann embrace… and it seems that Then Jane did come to Oregon and found the family while Now Jane will get a better grip on things. I told you that playwright Brunstetter was clever, didn’t I?
The BPP’s production is cleverly directed by Jack McCarthy with lots of effective bells and whistles from lighting designer Erika Johnson and sound designer David Sheehan. Chib Gratz costumes look just right for the contemporary and the pioneer characters. David Wade’s scenic design with a wonderfully active wagon would actually draw even teenagers away from their computer screens.
The Oregon Trail is character rich. Amy Reader as Now Jane is quite perfect as the moody, depressed…you’d like to pick her up, get her to a therapist, get her on meds and shake her…teen ager and young adult. Sarah Leaffer is her historical sad Then Jane. Lisa Podulka is thoroughly believable as the organized and organizing older sister, in high school, on the trail and as the overworked nurse. Steve Scott was thoroughly in character as the resolute father, Clancy. Joel Watson made a very personable high school jock and later an attractive townie failure.
I’ve said that Bekah Brunstetter’s The Oregon Trail clever, but it’s also vividly imagined, staged and presented. The production at the Bloomington Playwrights Project plays through May 26th
At the theatre for you, I’m George Walker