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An 'Ambition' That Succeeds
Theater Alliance Cast Shines in Sweeping Drama

By Celia Wren
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The sun never sets on restlessness, dramatist Anthony Clarvoe reminds us a little too pointedly in "Ambition Facing West," his determinedly resonant play about three generations of a migratory family.

That truism notwithstanding, director Jeremy Skidmore and a knockout cast make themselves thoroughly at home in the Theater Alliance staging of the piece. Without jeopardizing Clarvoe's focus on physical and spiritual wanderlust, the artists imbue the tale with a Zenlike centeredness -- fittingly enough, given that the play is partly set at a Buddhist shrine.

Simultaneously epic and intimate, and filled to bursting with neatly aligned motifs, "Ambition Facing West" follows a clan from early-20th-century Croatia to Wyoming in the 1940s, and then to Japan in the boom-or-bust 1980s. In each setting the characters' get-up-and-go proves a source of pride and optimism. But it also sparks generational conflict, as parents fret about separation and children grope -- mostly in vain -- for a sense of rootedness.

It's a never-ending pattern, suggests Clarvoe, who fills his characters' mouths with eloquent, poetically refracting observations on the matter. (Clarvoe has written that the play was inspired by his own family legacy.) And the Theater Alliance production, like previous stagings of "Ambition," emphasizes the pattern by having the actors double as figures from different times.

The excellent Amy McWilliams, for instance, plays Marija, a 1910 Croatian peasant who frets about the emigration dreams of her son (Joe Isenberg). She also plays Marija's grown-up granddaughter, the fast-quipping modern executive Alma, who conducts international deals by cellphone while strolling around the Japanese shrine. Similarly, Jennifer Mendenhall, who has a cameo in the turn-of-the-century section, gets to furnish a riveting performance as Josephina, Alma's dour, handicapped mother, who greets the events of World War II with a tour-de-force speech about the nature of pain.

Clarvoe's script crosscuts between the three eras so rapidly that the audience could get jet-lagged. But Skidmore keeps the narrative clear and fluid and uses simultaneous tableaux, in different areas of the stage, to create a poignant time-traveling perspective. Switching from one character to another, an actor might exit and reenter, or might just take a few steps across Tony Cisek's simple and evocative set: a configuration of wood-plank platforms that resemble piers, suggesting travel and partings.

Helping to conjure up three eras and continents is Ryan Rumery's stirring sound design: Lapping waves, gull cries, snippets of '40s radio shows, snatches of Balkan string music, wind chimes -- the sounds weave together in a rich fabric that supports the themes of loss, nostalgia and hope. Designer Nicholas John's lighting, which smooths narrative transitions, also feeds the subtext, flushing sunset-pink onto the backdrop.

Still, it's the actors who have to put the most work into buttressing the play's emotional and historical scope. Without exception, the cast does a terrific job, infusing Clarvoe's oh-so-telling dialogue with naturalism.

"The land of opportunity is a country that moves around," Alma remarks to her slacker son, Joey (Brandon McCoy). "It's gone halfway around the world, in just this century. With our people -- yours and mine -- chasing after it."

Not exactly the kind of thing you'd say to your own nearest and dearest? Maybe not, but McWilliams makes it sound plausible. And in other scenes, she turns Alma's dry banter into a welcome source of humor. (Alma's scarf-and-business-suit look is just one of costume designer Erin Nugent's vivid choices.)

Brian Hemmingsen lends mystery and charisma to Stipan, a hardworking union man in mid-century Wyoming; the actor is equally intriguing as Ivo, who tempts Young Stipan to America. Isenberg is affectingly callow as Young Stipan, and Maggie Glauber and Eric Messner create sturdy portraits of Young Alma and a Croatian priest, respectively.

One of the most bewitching things about the acting is the performers' ability to stay still when called for -- really listening to each other and maintaining a quiet intensity even when the narrative lens shifts. Skidmore is no doubt largely responsible for this economy and poise. If only he could teach it to the rest of us harried mortals.

Ambition Facing West, by Anthony Clarvoe. Directed by Jeremy Skidmore; props design, Justin Titley. About 2 hours 20 minutes. Through Nov. 4 at the H Street Playhouse, 1365 H St. NE. Call: 866-811-4111 or visit http://www.theateralliance.com.

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