Review by James Wilkinson
Nomad Americana – Written by Kira Rockwell. Director: Damon Krometis. Assistant Director: Sloth Levine. Dramaturg: Sara Brookner. Scenic Design: Baron E. Pugh. Lighting Design: Jess Krometis. Costume Design: Chelsea Kerl. Prop Design: Elizabeth Cahill. Dialect Consultant: Elizabeth Milanovich. Fight Choreographer: Margaret Clark; Special Education Consultant: Erin Ronder Neves. Presented by Fresh Ink Theatre at Boston Playwrights’ Theatre 949 Commonwealth Ave, Boston through February 18, 2018.
All hail the family unit, that rich treasure box of theatrical possibilities playwrights have been mining material from since the days of Medea and Oedipus Rex. We’re a few thousand years removed from those theatrical mainstays, but playwrights up through Eugene O’Neil, Sam Shepard and Paula Vogel have continually found new ways to break apart and examine familial bonds and their effects. To what extent are we our parents? How do we become our own individuals without shattering our ties to our family? Is that even possible? These are some of the questions playwright Kira Rockwell is contending with in her new play Nomad Americana, now being presented by Fresh Ink Theatre at Boston Playwrights’ Theatre. The play is a loving look at a family as one woman begins to wonder what’s next for her.
The woman in question is Bridgette Echo (Ivy Ryan), the eldest daughter of the Echo clan, which includes her pregnant mother Violet (Janelle Mills), her father Toby (Jeffrey Song), and sister Stormi (Khloe Alice Lin). The family has spent the last few years traveling the country in their mobile RV, camping at national parks and making their living by selling animal figures carved out of soap. On the eve of Bridgette’s twenty-first birthday, the family has set up shop at a small town in rural Texas as they wait for Violet to give birth. They feel the spot they have chosen harnesses great magic. While there, the family meets Danny (Nick Perron), a local boy with whom (after much cajoling by her mother) Bridgette begins a romantic relationship. As the two grow closer, Bridgette opens up about her frustration about her family, her long lost brother and her cravings for independence.
It is clear from the outset that Rockwell has a deep-seated love for her characters. I wasn’t surprised when I read in the press notes that her inspiration for the work was her own family in Texas. Each character is carefully drawn in a way that shows that she is enjoying the time she is spending with them. One of the big things that this production gets right is in taking the blueprint Rockwell sets down and running with it. We’ve all seen plays (or at least, I have) where actors who are supposed to be siblings seem like they’ve never met each other before. Thankfully, there’s none of that here. I whole-heartedly believed in the connections of this family, that they had been together for a long time, something that I would credit to the work of the actors and director Damon Krometis. They do a great job embracing the gentle humor of the play and working to charm the audience into liking them. They succeed. It’s a very likeable group of people to spend an evening with.
I think part of the goal Rockwell has set for herself with the play is to dramatize the family paradox we all face as we start to grow up. We (hopefully) love our family and cannot imagine life without them. At the same time, we’re desperate to stake out our own identity and path away from them. It’s a very uniquely American concern and the play looks to blend elements of a family drama and a coming-of-age tale. Unfortunately I think that it’s here that the play begins to wobble as some character motivations never become fully clear. For much of the piece Bridgette spends her time complaining about how embarrassing her hippie parents are and how she wants to break free but the second that someone offers her a way to do it, she’s horrified that someone would suggest that. It’s not that Bridgette can’t feel both of these things about her family (God knows that most of us do), but as written it never quite feels like two sides of the same coin. Based on the way she groans about her parents and how shocked she was when her mother suggests she go on a date with Danny, I would have assumed that her age was closer to fourteen years old if we hadn’t been told at the top of the show that she had just turned twenty-one. In a similar vein, Violet spends much of start of the play pushing her daughter to go out with Danny, only to be shocked in the next scene that she’s actually doing it.
There are no villains in this piece and I applaud Rockwell’s attempt to create a family drama where the conflict comes from within the protagonist rather than positioning her against her family. This is the story of a group of people who care for each other and are trying their best. That’s perhaps a better reflection of the real world and real families. All the same, I came away from the play wishing that it had a bit more bite to it. That’s not to say that there needed to be more yelling and tears, but conflicts between characters are forgiven with such ease that it doesn’t always feel earned. Though perhaps at the end of the day that says more about me, than it does about the play. For tickets and more information, visit their website at: www.freshinktheatre.org