The Way Out West
This article contains mild spoilers for The Way Out West.
The School of Drama kicked off their 2018/19 production season with the play The Way Out West. This was a newly commissioned piece for the Philip Chosky Theater written by Carnegie Mellon alumni Liza Birkenmeier, and also marked the university's directorial debut for the newly appointed John Wells Professor of Directing, Kim Weild. Set during World War II, the play follows the lives of characters at a government test site, as they grapple with the secret development of the atomic bomb.
From the opening minutes, it was clear that this wasn't going to be a very traditional play. Throughout the show, the set was mostly bare with very few set changes. There’s no straight plot either, rather the point is to watch the play's characters grow and develop over the course of 90 minutes. This can make for a challenging watch, but it’s incredibly rewarding and will stay with you long after. It's one of those stories that requires a lot of time to think about it before understanding its true meaning. The play was also presented without an intermission, which seems like a deliberate choice in hindsight and one that works very well. The intermission would ruin the pace at which the character development unfolds.
Despite the simple production design, it was incredibly effective and everything there was very convincing. There was a clear sense of space and time despite the barebones set presented. This may seem like a backhanded compliment, but it only makes sense when you see the play for yourself and see nearly nothing on stage. The sound design was also incredibly effective, with great use of music and sound effects. There was one particular sequence in the program where it flashes forward to 1990, and the music used to transition to the new time period was incredibly effective.
The actors also deserve praise for pulling off this difficult material. The play rests squarely on their ability to pull of their written characters really well and with nuance, and every cast member pulls off their roles. Special shoutouts go to senior Drama students Leaf Rickard as Irene and Brenna Power as Leona. Their onstage chemistry was an absolute treat to watch, and their dynamics and development were highlights of the play.
However, the play’s main star was the script. The main conflict of the story revolved around the secrecy of the atomic bomb’s development and its implication, but for the first 40 to 45 minutes, the story seemed to be going nowhere. All the elements and relationships were established and fleshed out early on and while they were all compelling, it left you wondering for so long what the point was to everything. But after a few significant turning points, the first 40 minutes suddenly fell into place. The play was never about the bomb itself, rather about how something as morally ambiguous as the atomic bomb can strain relationships, since people had disagreements over its meaning and how to use it. Both sides of this debate had valid arguments: there is merit to those who support a quick and swift end to a war, and there is also merit in the argument that the usage of the atomic bomb is cruel and lacks the foresight of its long term consequences. It is juxtaposed against modern political discourse over drone warfare and even against Hindu mythology. It’s a very timely parallel to modern politics where families, friendships, and relationships have become more tumultuous in an era of divisive rhetoric.
Having thought about it for several days, the play has really come to grow on me and on many others who have watched it. The Way Out West is a thought-provoking triumph, and major props should be given to everyone for pulling off a play like this with such precision and skill. The School of Drama is off to a great start so far with its 2018/19 season, and if the later selections in their schedule are any indication, they seem to have a great season lined up for everyone to enjoy.