The compulsion to leave one’s home for another land is driven by many factors—persecution, war, famine, economics, and wanderlust, just to name a few—and many have made the journey. Such migrations have always been an essential element in human history.
To capture the essence of the motivations and emotions, of those so driven, in a piece of theatre is rare indeed; yet, in Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company’s current production of Anthony Clarvoe’s Ambition Facing West, directed by Stephen Weitz, we have such a production, intricately woven and elegantly produced, performed, and staged (Tina Anderson).
The dramatic tapestry is cross-stitched and cross-hatched of three times and places—1910 Croatia, 1940 Wyoming, and 1980 Japan—as well as double-cast characters and actors that play their own parents or later incarnations of their own archetypes.
Consider the relentless push of Europeans across the North Atlantic, across North America, and, eventually across the North Pacific in pursuit of fortune, cheap labor, and, finally, the meditative arts (zen and yoga).
West was the direction and ambition was the call.
Underneath all of this was the disposition for a better life, however each of the seekers defined it.
In the old country, Father Luka (Casey Andree) teaches Young Stipan (John Hauser) to read using a translation of a locally grown myth, Jason and the Argonauts and the quest for the Golden Fleece. As Young Stipan matures, he is pulled in many directions: his attraction to Miss Adamic (Adrian Egolf)—watched closely by her mother, Mrs. Adamic (Karen LaMoureaux)—promises of work and adventure in America by Ivo (Chris Kendall), and by his mother (Haley Johnson) and the priest, who plead that he stay in the village, for the family’s sake and for the sake of village survival.
In Big Sky country, Stipan (Kendall), now a union labor organizer, and his wife, Josephina (LaMoureaux), raise their daughter, Young Alma (Egolf), to be educated and independent, but she is drawn to take care of her mother, who is on crutches, and, romantically, to Jim (Benjamin Bonenfant), a classmate who joins the Army Air Corp as World War Two opens on both the Pacific and European fronts.
Finally, in the Land of the Rising Sun, Alma (Johnson) takes her son, Joey (Bonenfant), along while she conducts business, where he connects with a Zen monk, Eugene (Andree), and begins a spiritual quest that leads to a separation from his mother.
The subtext of these historically sequential but theatrically concommitant subplots is rich. First, with the double-casting: the actor playing the priest goes Zen, the actress playing the girl to whom Stipan is first attracted later becomes his daughter, the actress playing her mother in Croatia is also her mother in Wyoming, the actor playing the labor recruiter for unscrupulous robber barons later becomes a union organizer, and the actress playing the mother of Young Stipan is later mother to his grandson.
The plot parallels are equally compelling, with each time-setting capturing a young adult setting out on their own: Young Stipan to find work in America; Young Alma, with some prodding by her parents, to go to college; and, finally, Alma’s son finding peace from consumerism and attention deficit symptoms in an Eastern spiritual practice.
The story is filled with beautiful moments and comedic punch, beginning with Marija, Stipan’s mother’s (Johnson) emotional appeal to the priest, imploring him to get her son to stay. Miss Adamic (Egolf) draws Young Stipan (Hauser) to her, setting us up to believe she is interested, but as it turns out, she is using him to get her mother (who is watching from a shop window) to over-react and take her to Vienna, where girls have more opportunities. Egolf brings down the house when she deadpans to Hauser to keep staring at her.
Stipan (Kendall) and Josephina (LaMoureaux), must find a way to convince their daughter, Young Alma (Egolf), to leave Wyoming and pursue her education in California. Such poignant lines in these scenes, followed up with laughs: Kendall telling Egolf that the best thing she could do for her parents is to raise her children, and then asking LaMoureaux (offstage) how he did. Later, we see Alma (Johnson) having a hard time letting go of her son, Joey (Bonenfant). Again, some heart-rendering conversation followed by a sweet moment.
After all the ambition, what did our European ancestors find by going west? Here, playwright Clarvoe blesses us with two fine ideas, one from Mark Twain and a follow-up from the Buddha. Priceless.