For me, the worst nightmares have always been the ones closest to reality. Aliens, ghosts, and monsters don’t scare me as much as thinking about someone waiting in the bushes outside my window at night. I think it has to do with the sense of things being absolutely normal until they aren’t–a sort of false sense of security broken. This is the area where Calamity West’s new play In The Canyon lives and breathes—taking our false sense of security and undermining it slowly and with great precision until we can see the real monsters hiding under our beds. Elly Green directs a talented cast in this production at Jackalope Theatre.
In service of the play it’s best not to reveal too much of the plot, as knowing what the play is “about,” so to speak, may color your viewing. In fact, West herself has taken some steps to try to obfuscate or fuzzy up the picture in the beginning, with characters in the program referenced only by numbers and in order of appearance. You have to pay attention to these details or they slip away from you—a kind of foreshadowing and underscoring of West’s overall agenda.
Everything seems normal enough as we enter the world of Hope (Liz Sharpe), a young person trying to navigate life and relationships in the city. We meet her semi-obnoxious roommate Katie (Paloma Nozicka), her semi-checked out boyfriend Doug (Andrew Burden Swanson) and her upstairs neighbor Elizabeth (Helen Joo Lee). Each of these characters could easily have been as surface as their stated roles, but West paints with a lighter touch. There are no real bit parts or stereotypical seconds. Each person that crosses the stage seems a rounded out, realistic character.
This of course is also owing to fantastic casting, and each actor proves more than capable. Paloma Nozicka, Actor One (who we know as Katie) is a sort of Krysten Ritter-esque tough girl who’s got a soft spot for her roomie but is hard as nails for anyone else. Elizabeth, yes, is the exhausted writer from upstairs who wants these damn kids to turn the music down, but is also a tentative, curious, quiet and kind sort who’s there to help Hope when everyone else has taken a pass. Helen Joo Lee lends a quiet strength to all her characters in this show, and a great comedic flair.
In a rather grim overall situation, West’s writing allows for moments of levity, and director Elly Green helps maximize these moments and give them the space they need, for example, when Hope (played wonderfully by Liz Sharpe) is checking her bank balance angrily over several minutes as the bank’s automated response system drones on, stopping her catlike pacing only to pointedly press buttons at her boyfriend while she does. Similarly, Green allows moments of tension to build and topple a sense of security in a moment, taking all the air out of the room, and West perfects that moment of discomfort with real, flawed characters who can just as easily win you to their side as lose you a moment later. Add to this a beautiful job on the part of lighting designers John Kelly and Shelbi Arndt that help to softly punctuate the moods and intensify tension.
As the play continues through its five parts, these moments of discomfort become more and more frequent and harder to ignore. Anyone who’s been a part of a “church family” until something they’d done made them prodigal sons or daughters would find In the Canyon’s church basement act painfully accurate, as Peter Moore’s “man of God” routine stretches thin to reveal racist, classist and mysogynist realities, and in one of the play’s most painful moments, Hope finds and loses a friend.
It’s in this act we see a few more standout performances, too, as Andrew Burden Swanson, who appeared as Doug the boyfriend in the first act, takes on the role of Kent, a youth pastor-cum-used-car-salesman type and really shines, even as he unsettles everything around him with insincerity and judgment under the surface of every goofy laugh and God Bless. Here again Nozicka, now as Anna, manages to balance great humor with a deep sincerity that makes us want to like her even when she’s not particularly likeable, and Shariba Rivers, who plays Hope’s mother Sarah, embodies the stately southern woman with a quiet strength and more than enough kindness and hospitality to go around, without ever becoming cliché or insincere, in a room full of people who are all at least somewhat behind masks of their own making. Rivers becomes the calm in the room, the buoy you’ll look back on when the waters get choppy, which they will quickly.
One of West’s best capabilities and one of the reasons it’s easy to get sucked into her narratives is her ability to write realistic conflict—painful, lifelike confrontations that it feels almost wrong to witness.
Calamity West seems to have a good grip on the subtleties of intimate relationships—between friends, lovers, communities, and it helps to shape the overall tone of the piece. In the Canyon, in the end, is a nightmarish view of a potential future for America, but nuance in the writing, care and skill on the part of the actors, and a skilled director mean the nuanced pastel palette never erupts into something cartoonish. In the Canyon, instead, walks a careful line between unflinching reality with a sci-fi underscoring and the romance of a spaghetti Western as things start to unravel.
After the play reaches intermission, its pace begins to quicken, and what was merely unsettling becomes life-threatening. Time marches on in great leaps, things change for Hope, and we’re introduced to her as mother and wife, and to Diego Cólon, who’s fantastic in the role of Charlie, Hope’s husband. Cólon is charming, funny and effortless on stage, and expertly rides the knife’s edge later in a conflict with Hope that could’ve turned the audience against him for good.
While Parts 4 and 5 are incredibly important to the whole of In the Canyon, they may also be a little less sturdy. By the time we arrive at Part 4, decades have passed and things have changed a lot. It’s a leap you have to be willing to take with West and the cast, and one you’re not entirely sure of as Part 4 opens with a sort of soliloquy of ponderings only tangentially related to the overall theme that we can only partially forgive as the ramblings of someone driven mad by incarceration. That said, this potential stumbling block is smoothed over somewhat by Helen Joo Lee’s performance, and the act goes on to echo an earlier scene between Sharpe and Joo Lee and set the tone for Part 5.
As you’d expect, the last act sees the future descend into its darkest points. Where a light exists both performance-wise and within the narrative is Wendy. This is perhaps the standout performance for Shariba Rivers, who’d already been incredible to this point. Wendy is solid, soft, smart and acerbic—the best of her mother and then some, and as we step into the stark reality of what could happen if we ignore the warning signs, she’s the one point of hope, if small. She’s stalwart and determined to keep fighting, and remind us to do something more.
In the Canyon is a well-balanced, complex piece of art supported by an amazing cast and precision crew. Calamity West manages to hook you in and get you comfortable only to take you places no one wants to see clearly. At any point in a story like this one, you could lose your audience if too hamfisted, too unrealistic or too melodramatic, but West and the cast manage to keep a steady hand to the wheel, as the heat turns up in this nightmare slowly at first, reaching a real boiling point and managing to leave viewers with a lingering sense of dread, and hopefully, the means to see through the fog that it’s time to take action.
In the Canyon runs until November 24 at Jackalope Theatre in the Broadway Armory at 5917 N Broadway. Tickets for the show can be purchased here.
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