Puzzle Piece’s “Ambition Facing West” plays out the struggle across generations
FERNDALE, Mich. – Even if you aren’t Croatian like the three generations of family featured in Ambition Facing West, the theme of push and pull between parents and children is likely to resonate.
Anthony Clarvoe’s Elliott Norton Award winning (Best New Play) is making its Michigan premiere at Puzzle Piece Theatre, which is in residence at Slipstream Theatre. The production marks a homecoming of sorts for director D.B. Schroeder, who helmed the show’s critically acclaimed Chicago premiere in 2006 and staged Clarvoe’s Show and Tell as Puzzle Piece Theatre’s Michigan debut in February 2013.
Schroeder says he debated whether to revisit what is his favorite play, but he couldn’t resist. The theme — making a better future for those who follow us — is universal and connects us all, he says.
The play opens in turn-of-the-century Dalmatia, but slips back and forth between 1940s Wyoming, 1980s Japan and 1910 Croatia. Throughout the play, the parents of each generation struggle with the desire to hold their children close versus the drive to push them toward something better. Middle-aged Stipan (Lindel Salow) gives a send-off speech to his daughter Young Alma (Tiaja Sabrie) that is heartfelt and extremely touching. His pain is palpable as he struggles to be the parent that he didn’t have. He is in tears afterward when he asks his wife, Josephina (Linda Rabin Hammell) how he did. Some of the audience (OK, yours truly) was also in tears.
All but one of the actors are double-cast, as individual actors play different generations of the family. Joshua Daniel Palmer plays a convincing boy-coming-of age in the 80s, complete with floppy hair and the endless navel-gazing so prolific of that generation. His mother, a now-adult Alma (Laura Heikkinen), struggles with the demands of being both a single parent and high-powered executive who impressively knows the ins and outs of Japanese business culture. She also plays Marija, who is the mother of Young Stipan (Joseph Sfair). Sergio Mautone slips effortlessly between his two characters, Father Luka, who teaches Young Stipan English in 1910 Croatia and encourages his independence, and Eugene, a graduate student studying religion in Japan in the 80s.
Besides exploring family dynamics, the play includes references to war and immigration, which are as timely today as they were in the 1940s, maybe even more so. Young Alma’s beau, Jim (also played by Sfair), laments that he will be unable to fight for the Allies on the ground in Europe after he enlists for duty during World War II because of his Italian heritage. Josephina, also Italian, frets over whether she will be sent to an internment camp because of her heritage.
The simple yet elegant set (designed by director Schroeder) is noteworthy. As the audience arrives, Miss Adamic (also played by Sabrie) is sitting near the edge of the stage where a cutout reveals a small pond. She meditatively pulls a model sailboat back and forth across the water. A pile of gravel (actually rubber mulch) in the middle of the stage figures prominently throughout the generations. Ivo, the ship owner, also played by Salow, encourages Young Stipan to take a handful of it to America so he can be buried in his native soil. The exceedingly bright and precocious Young Alma tries to explain why the sky is larger than the sea to her father by drawing in it. And an older Alma struggles as the pieces of gravel continue to find their way into her pumps, no matter how carefully she walks.
The two-hour play has one intermission, which is well-placed and gives the audience a chance not only to stretch, but to reflect and converse about what they have seen. The changing characters and rapidly shifting time elements take a few scenes to figure out, but make perfect sense by the end of the play. In some cases, different generations of the same character (Alma and Stipan) are on stage together, which gives the impression of the older character having a poignant memory of younger years. In other cases, a character transforms to the other character without even leaving the stage by adding an apron, a head scarf or a sash. Stage manager Imani Sims makes it seem seamless. Costumes (curated by Heikkinen), who also is the associate artistic director of Puzzle Piece), do an excellent job of communicating the time periods.
Ultimately, the characters are well-developed, the dialogue beautifully written, and there is something with which every audience member can consider and identify. After all, we are all someone’s child, for better or worse.