My friend Geoffrey Stern, who taught international relations at the London School of Economics, used to try and tease out of his students a definition of the word “nation.” Was a nation simply its physical boundaries? A group of people living under a specific government, or with a common language or religion? For every argument his students put forth, he’d find a contradiction. Finally, he’d explain that the nation was an idea, a concept agreed on by its inhabitants. “The nation is a notion,” he’d say, grinning.
Central Europe has become a particularly baffling notion, with borders there having shifted so frequently during the twentieth century. It is, says one of the characters in Anthony Clarvoe’s Ambition Facing West, an Alice in Wonderland place “where the people stay put and the countries move around.” This play, now being given its regional premiere in Boulder, is ostensibly about immigration, since it deals with three generations of an immigrant family — their lives, identities and ambitions in the mythical trek west for safety, opportunity and freedom, however defined. But Clarvoe goes deeper than that.
Ambition Facing West isn’t a straightforward narrative or a work with a clean, cut-and-dried theme. It’s an exploration, emotional and intellectual, of the idea of home and away, cultural shifts, parents and children, movement and stillness, religion and the great, uncaring tides of history. In other words, just about everything that matters.
The story concerns Stipan, who leaves Croatia as a young man before the first world war and ends up working in a Wyoming mine, where he becomes an effective union organizer, even as the country of his birth descends into fascism. (It’s worth noting that one aspect of fascism is an obsessive emphasis on national pride and the symbols of national identity.) Stipan has married an Italian woman, Josephina, herself an escapee from a murky past who, as World War II rages, worries that Italian-Americans will be interned like the Japanese-Americans. The couple’s daughter, Alma, falls in love with Jim, and he, having come to despise his Italian-born parents, eventually goes off to war.
Time is fluid; the play is written in brief scenes, and past and present seem to interact. We begin with young Stipan in Croatia, being taught to read by a kindly priest, Father Luka, and later see him as an adult with Alma and Josephina in the 1940s. In another continuing thread, Alma is with her own son in 1980s Japan — then hailed as the golden land of economic success and opportunity. The sensitive, intellectually curious daughter of a union man has become a sarcastic, hard-nosed management expert, at odds with her restless son, Joey. When Joey becomes interested in zen Buddhism, Alma points out that Buddhism does not rightfully belong to him. But then, what does? His foreign-born grandparents? His education? His very American hyperactivity and constant fiddling with his Walkman?
All this may sound cloudy, but it isn’t. And while knowing a little about twentieth-century European history helps, it’s not necessary to understand and savor the narrative. Each scene is self-contained and specific, the characters are richly drawn and full of life, and the dialogue intrigues.
Stephen Weitz has directed with a strong, steady hand. The action takes place on an evocative set: raw wood platforms, a still pool of water, the crunch of gravel underfoot. The acting is uniformly first-rate. Adrian Egolf couldn’t be more charming as young Alma, and Karen LaMoureaux, who has been absent from area stages far too long, is full of sad, bitter power as Josephina. John Hauser does well as innocent young Stipan and Casey Andree as Father Luka. Haley Johnson is wonderful in the contrasting roles of Stipan’s stubborn, peasant mother and worldly adult Alma, and Benjamin Bonenfant gives us a fascinatingly stubborn and complex Joey. Chris Kendall‘s thoughtful, strong and gentle Stipan is at the heart of the action.
The times change us and we change the times. Stipan’s rural, rooted mother finds a funhouse-mirror image in rootless American businesswoman Alma, who at play’s end is headed to Croatia, of all places — not for any sentimental reasons, but because of the business opportunities created by the impending fall of the Soviet Union. Where and who will she be when Yugoslavia crumbles and her father’s homeland descends again into war?