Encore Michigan

World Premiere: ‘900 Miles’ at Williamston projects gender roles in a war weary future

Review February 11, 2020 Bridgette Redman

WILLIAMSTON, Mich.–Throughout recorded history, tales of women resisting war and trying to save their children resonate in literature and storytelling. Whether it is 411 BC and women are withholding sex to bring their warriors home or 1915 and a Congress of Women passing resolutions to end the Great War, there are women who have fought against the futility of battles that kill their husbands and children.

So, it is not too much of a stretch to believe that in the future, 2054 to be exact, that there will still be women carrying out this ancient tradition.

Annie Martin has written a play that speculates what the near future would look like if the planet had been engaged in an endless war against aliens, a world in which all men were conscripted to fight once they turned 16 and all women were expected to churn out babies for the war effort from the time they turned 17.

This work, 900 Miles to International Falls, is getting its world premiere at Williamston Theatre in the capable hands of Director Tony Caselli who leads the show into an exploration of the effects of war, self-determination, and the dehumanization of the “other,” with such delicacy that it welcomes an analysis of these questions by everyone on any spot on the political spectrum.

This dystopian work with lots of Orwellian overtones works because there is so much heart in the story that is ably communicated by the characters who inhabit Martin’s futuristic world. It starts out with stark coldness found in Bartley H. Bauer’s imposing grey wall with harsh squares climbing to the ceiling and a grey painted floor that speaks of the chill of industrial cement.

While Bauer’s creation aids in the immediate setting of mood, it is also cleverly functional, for it opens into several different configurations to create different spaces as well as providing an effective backdrop for the many projections designed by Alison Dobbins.

It is Dobbins’ work which opens the action of the show, with a series of newscasts that provide the audience with the history of what has happened between our present day and the present day of the play. She creates ominous projections throughout the play where the Big Brother-like announcer gives the news of the day and leads the women in chanting slogans such as talking about how any empty womb is a missing opportunity and that the sacrifice is theirs to give.

Casaundra Freeman’s Tanya seems unlikely to provide the warmth factor to the show when first she is introduced. She scowls and has no patience for her chipper, pregnant working partner who babbles happily away while they construct the guns that will fuel the war effort. But it is Freeman who will make this world one that the audience cares about.

She is the mother of a happy, energetic young man whom she is desperate to keep from being used up in a war effort she no longer believes in. She walks the edge between outright resistance in a world where dissent can get you killed and insolent cooperation. Freeman manages to hit every emotional note that Martin has composed for her from humor to heartbreak to anger to fear. Tanya has her secrets and her plans and she will let nothing get in her way.

Jon Kent is her son, Clark, who at first seems mostly oblivious to impending adulthood and the heavy responsibilities that come with it. He’s carried away by the hormones of adolescence, something that hasn’t changed throughout history.   

That Costumer Karen Kangas-Preston introduces us to Kent dressed in a Superman shirt is no mistake. Aside from the references in the text to Superman, it helps to set up Clark’s mindset and innocent naivete so often seen in the superhero’s alter ego and this young man’s namesake.

He’s thrown into the throes of desire when he meets J, played by Heather Mahoney, their young, pregnant new neighbor who is lovely and whose accent sets her apart from the other women he knows. In a society that encourages him to impregnate as many women as possible before going off to war, he is searching for real connections.

Mahoney completes the trio upon which Martin’s story focuses. J seems to be cooperating with the mandate of society, but Mahoney slowly reveals that there is more to this character than what first appears.

The charisma and connections between these three characters is powerful and creates ever-rising stakes as the play goes on. Meanwhile Karen Sheridan and Darah Donaher provide the remaining population of a world absent of all adult men. They switch quickly in and out of costumes, demeanor and voice to create the threats that each character faces.

The creative and technical team all shared a vision of Martin’s world and worked together to help paint the picture in the audience’s imagination. In addition to the set, costumes and projections, Michelle Raymond created the arsenal that could be taken apart and assembled repeatedly on stage as well as the warm mementos that made an otherwise bleak apartment a home. Reid Johnson’s lighting contributed to the mood, both underlining the emotional arc of the story and reinforcing the character of this war-soaked world.

900 Miles to International Falls asks questions about what we might do in a war-weary world where it seems impossible to make a difference because the odds against us are so great. What can any one individual do? When is it important to break free from our isolation and reach out to others, whether it is to help them, to let them help us or to learn to trust and care. It is ultimately a beautiful work by Martin interpreted with heart and love by the artists at Williamston Theatre.