Westport Country Playhouse
Westport Country Playhouse is currently presenting a splendid production of Pearl Cleage’s powerful, funny, and deeply satisfying play, “Flyin’ West.” Set in Kansas, in 1898, this play explores a family of African American women and what happens when conflict arises in their lives. By turns, amusing, sobering, and mystical, “Flyin’ West” is a richly theatrical experience, with a uniformly strong cast and excellent direction by Seret Scott.
On Marjorie Bradley Kellogg’s marvelous set of the interior of a house from that period, there are many laughs in this show, as well as moments that are deeply troubling. Still, at its heart, there are the solid familiar connections of the women at the center of the play and that is what one is ultimately left with at the conclusion of the show. Westport Country Playhouse has done a wonderful job with “Flyin’ West” and it is truly a production that deserves to be seen.
As the lights slowly come up on this play, the audience is greeted to the sight of two women onstage, just beginning to start their day. Above all, there is Miss Leah, the matriarch of the family, portrayed by the superlative Brenda Pressley. “Flyin’ West” is definitely a story of strong women and Pressley is perhaps the strongest of them all. It is noted that, while Miss Leah is not the mother of the three grown girls in the play, she is most definitely the mother-figure for all of them. Pressley is warm, stern, and resourceful and fully brings to life this extraordinary character.
Also in the cast is Nikiya Mathis as Sophie, who, in her own way, is just about as solid a figure as Miss Leah. Mathis is extremely good in this part and one of the running jokes in “Flyin’ West” is that she is almost always seen with a shotgun in her hand. As perhaps the sweetest sister, Fannie, Brittany Bradford is enormously lovable and empathetic, as well as being forthright and firm when she needs to be.
The major plot point in “Flyin’ West” is the arrival of the third sister, Minnie, who is married and has been living in London. Enacted with a certain fragility that can take one’s breath away, Keona Welch plays her part with a mixture of eagerness and of deep sadness. Not to give too much of the story away, but the main conflict in the play is Minnie’s relationship with her uppity husband Frank (played with unflinching coldness by Michael Chenevert) and what happens within the family when they discover that there is most definitely trouble in Minnie’s marriage.
Still, since “Flyin’ West” is filled with surprises, it is best to keep from giving away anything else that happens in the play. Suffice it is to say, the women in “Flyin’ West” take care of their own, and it is this bond between all of them that brings such vibrancy to both the play and the production. Not to be forgotten, there is a sixth character, Wil Parish, played by the handsome and sympathetic Edward O’Blenis, who is “sweet” on Fannie, as well as being protective of her and her family.
Director Seret Scott works as effectively with her designers, as she does with her company of actors. The scenic design by Marjorie Bradley Kellogg is just about ideal for this story of a group of truly pioneering women. The terrific costume design by Heidi Leigh Hanson helps summon up the time and place of the play perfectly, and lighting designer Stephen Strawbridge has handsomely and effectively lit the action in the play.
There are a lot of disturbing things seen in “Flyin’ West,” most especially due to the actions of Michael Chenevot, as Minnie’s husband, and this actor wisely keeps from sugar-coating his character. Still, this play is also about sisterhood and doing what is best for the family. This play certainly journeys in some unexpected ways, but that warmth at the center of the clan onstage is always apparent. Pearl Cleage’s writing is filled with nuance and texture, as well as a good deal of humor, and these qualities shine brightly in Westport Country Playhouse’s expert production of “Flyin’ West.”
“Flyin’ West” continues performances at Westport Country Playhouse in Westport, CT through June 16, 2018. For tickets, please visit www.westportplayhouse.org or call the box office at 203-227-4177.
Photo: Brenda Pressley
Photo by Carol Rosegg