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Breitwisch Farm

Eight characters on a faltering Wisconsin farm combat economic hardships and despair in this uneven Chekhovian family drama that’s inventively presented.

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Alejandro Rodriquez and Katie Wieland in a scene from “Breitwisch Farm” (Photo credit: William Edward Marsh)

Darryl Reilly

Darryl Reilly, Critic

“I don’t like options. I like McDonald’s!” says a teenaged girl in playwright Jeremy J. Kamps’ overloaded though engaging examination of the American heartland, Breitwisch Farm. Set on a Wisconsin family farm facing foreclosure over a period of six months in 2010 and 2011, this ambitious play has allusions to Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard and alludes to the emergence of Donald Trump.

Fracking, illegal immigration, economic stagnation, ICE agents, anti-Obama sentiment, Dreamers, student loan and credit card debt are all issues indicative of the general malaise affecting the region that are cited.  A temporary escape is through the adoration of football.

Mr. Kamps tenderly delineates his eight characters with biographical details, strong character traits and lots of conflict reminiscent of the style of Lanford Wilson. The Midwestern environment and sensibility is authentically rendered by the expressive dialogue.  Kamp is less successful in crafting a compelling plot.

The fiery and principled, 35-year-old Webster Breitwisch has returned after many years abroad to his homestead, a faltering organic farm. He works for a human rights organization and has been thrown out of Rwanda for his activities. He was estranged from his alcoholic and deceased father.

His dying and unseen mother has run the farm with zeal but without financial success.  She’s been assisted the last four years by the idealistic 24-year-old Zai. She was born in Tanzania, and was adopted and raised by American parents and has the spirit of youth.  Also working and living on the farm is the stalwart, illegal Mexican immigrant Dolores and her edgy 17-year-old high school football star son, Oscar. Delores’ husband was deported some time ago.

Joe Tapper in a scene from “Breitwisch Farm” (Photo credit: William Edward Marsh)

Others around are Webster’s melancholy older sister Leena, her goofy ex-husband Randy and their 17-year-old daughter Bree. Then there is Jimmy Feucht, Webster’s high school classmate who is now the principal and is running as a Republican for a state assembly seat. Breezy and amiable, he is the play’s opportunistic political mouthpiece and foil to Progressive ideals.

After 45 minutes of exposition and establishing the characters, the underlying plot point of losing the farm is divulged. In the equally digressive second act, other threads are revealed and previous ones are amplified with the romance of the conservative Feucht and Delores. Webster and Zai also become involved. She has been sought after by Oscar. There is a harrowing incident involving Oscar. What to do with the farm is addressed.

It’s all quite Chekhovian but lacking in finesse. The didactic elements and the personal revelations aren’t well integrated and so there are stretches of tedium as it all plays out by rote. The speechifying conclusion isn’t as powerful as intended.

Breitwisch Farm is the second production of the Esperance Theater Company. It strives “to lift away the fourth wall to reveal lean, actor-focused, ensemble-driven projects that are rooted in intimate storytelling.” That belief is certainly on display at the recently opened new event space Town Stages.

It’s been configured as a U-shaped runway with two rows of audience seats.  The long narrow playing area has the actors very close to the audience.  At one end of the stage scenic designer Alexander Woodward creatively has a jumble of vintage wooden furniture, lamps, milk crates, trunks and an assortment of props that smoothly get hauled out to indicate different locations.

Katie Wieland, Will Manning and Danaya Esperanza in scene from “Breitwisch Farm” (Photo credit: William Edward Marsh)

Esperance Theater Company’s artistic director Ryan Quinn directed the production. Mr. Quinn’s inventive staging is vigorous and aesthetic yielding in visually charged sequences that energize the uneven writing.  Watching the Super Bowl becomes a frenetic production number.

There is, however, an excess on this level.  The play opens with the cast running around miming shooting machine guns, playing football and performing movements that would be cool in a modern dance piece.  Here it’s distracting symbolism. Nevertheless, Quinn’s work with the cast results in a true sense of an ensemble with everyone connected and believable.

The rugged and soulful Joe Tapper anchors the presentation with his emotionally volatile performance in the leading role of Webster.  Much is made of the character’s facial scars from a clash in Africa but Mr. Tapper’s face is unmarked. It must be assumed that this omission is strategic.

Katie Hartke as Leena, Will Manning as Randy, Charlie Murphy as Feucht, Maria Peyramaure as Delores, Alejandro Rodriguez as Oscar, Katie Wieland as Bree and Danaya Esperanza as Zai all achieve solid and lively characterizations.

The rugged and soulful Joe Tapper anchors the presentation with his emotionally volatile performance in the leading role of Webster.  Much is made of the character’s facial scars from a clash in Africa but Mr. Tapper’s face is unmarked. It must be assumed that this is omission is strategic.

Lighting designer Leslie Smith adeptly conveys realism with straightforward brightness that shifts to dimness giving clarity to scene transitions. William Neal’s sound design perfectly modulates music, effects and ambient sounds. Costume designer Kaitlyn McDonald clothes most everyone in basic jeans and T-shirts, except for the casual nattiness of Feucht.

Breitwisch Farm excels as an affective family drama of depth and scope that could stand a tauter and more focused construction.

Breitwisch Farm (through March 16, 2018)

Esperance Theater Company

Town Stages, 221 West Broadway, in Manhattan

For tickets, visit http://www.esperancetheatercompany.org

Running time: two hours and 30 minutes with one intermission

Share your thoughts in the comment section below.

Darryl Reilly
About Darryl Reilly (539 Articles)
A native New Yorker, Darryl Reilly graduated from NYU with a BFA in Cinema Studies. For the Broadway League, (formerly The League of American Theatres and Producers) he developed, and for five years conducted their Broadway Open House Tours, which took visitors through The Theatre District and into several Broadway theaters. He contributed to Broadway Musicals Show by Show: Sixth Edition (Applause Books). Since 2013, he has reviewed theater, cabaret, and concerts for Theaterscene.net.

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