Theater Alliance's Ambition Facing West

During the intermission for Ambition Facing West, two people came in and asked to get tickets for the second half. I guess they had been running late, but still wanted to see the play. They asked what the play was about. Standing in front of the headshots in the lobby I pointed to the actors’ pictures and tried to explain.

Ambition Facing West is about immigrants in America, it is about how you find your way and your home, it is about how you define who you are, and what it means to be displaced. It takes place in three locations: turn of the century Croatia, 1940s Wyoming, and 1980s Japan. Most of the actors play two characters. I went through the time periods and explained who was playing whom and what their relationships were. Maggie Glauber plays Miss Adamic in the first time period, and young Alma in the second. Amy McWilliams plays Alma in the third time period. In the first time period she is Marija, mother of Joe Isenberg’s young Stipan. Brian Hemmingsen plays Stipan in the second time period, who is the father of Alma. Etcetera.

When I finished my spiel I turned around to see if it made sense to the two latecomers and discovered that nearly the entire audience was standing there listening to me explain the play. Not a good sign.

Indeed the show suffers from an unclear and confusing first half. This is not helped by the fact that who has an accent and who doesn’t, and the strength of the accent, seems rather inexplicable. The second half is stronger, and the characters become more engaging, but it still feels slow.

The actors and director Jeremy Skidmore are not able to overcome the weaknesses of the script. Most successful is Joe Isenberg as Young Stipan and Jim. He was the most natural person onstage, and not one moment ever felt like he was “acting.” On the other end is Maggie Glauber as Miss Adamic and Young Alma. Her delivery of both roles is forced and belabored, preventing the audience from feeling any emotional connection with her. The rest of the actors lie in the middle. Amy McWilliams (Marija and Alma) and Jennifer Mendenhall (Mrs. Adamic and Josephina) both give strong performances as the mothers; Mendenhall is particularly good in a monologue to her daughter about the suffering that life brings about.

It should be noted that I attended a preview performance and hopefully as the run goes on the actors will become more settled in their roles. I do love the fact that theatre in Washington, DC is so varied and that there are companies devoted to doing new work or work that isn’t seen a lot. Theater Alliance and director Jeremy Skidmore fall into this category, and should be commended for it. It is a risk to take on rarely-produced works. Sometimes it works out (Skidmore’s last, Blue/Orange, was excellent) and sometimes, as with Ambition Facing West, it doesn’t.

2 stars
Through November 4th


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