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Folk Wandering Steps Into America's Past Through a Dusty Attic

Pipeline Theatre Company presents the world premiere of a new ensemble musical.

The cast of Folk Wandering, conceived by Jaclyn Backhaus and Andrew Neisler and directed by Neisler at A.R.T./New York Theatres.
(© Suzi Sadler)

Three American stories intersect in an attic where old wounds have been buried under piles of dusty junk. Folk Wandering, which receives its world premiere with Pipeline Theatre Company at A.R.T./New York Theatres after a seven-year incubation, stays true to its "wandering" spirit, meandering somewhere between play, musical, and guided memory tour. Although Jaclyn Backhaus (who co-conceived the show with Andrew Neisler) is the only credited book writer, there are 10 contributors to the score, lending Folk Wandering the essence of a neighborhood potluck: There are a few standout dishes, the company is charming, but the whole is less than the sum of its fragmented parts.

Protagonists from 1911, 1933, and 1955 (refreshingly all female) take turns living out the shadows of their stories with brief respites in the anchoring attic. In 1911 on the Lower East Side of New York City, we meet almost-14-year-old Rosealia (the picture of precociousness as played by Lena Hudson), the child of Italian immigrants. She has dreams of becoming an esteemed journalist — an aspiration derailed when her parents make her quit school to take up factory work with her mother and sister.

Two decades later, at the peak of the Dust Bowl, we find a desperate woman named Kai (Kim Blanck, standing out with her vocal performance of the song "Burning Bright") and her daughter Alma (Jordan Tyson) making their way west when they encounter the kind wandering stranger Everett Ruess (Andrew R. Butler). Two decades after that, it's the era of rock and roll, and a singer named Hannah (Morgan Siobhan Green, with a standout voice and frustratingly underdeveloped character) follows her lover and bandmate Bobby Lombardi (Adrian Blake Enscoe), from New York to small town Sweetser, Indiana, where she finds him impersonating film star James Dean.

All three stories are inspired by relics dug out of the cardboard boxes scattered around the stage (a nostalgic environment designed by Carolyn Mraz). For Rosealia, it's pages of her writing; for Kai, a photo of her mysterious desert savior Everett; and for Hannah, an old record she'd rather forget. As rediscovered objects tend to be, they're effective portals to the past, but under Neisler's direction, the filter through which we're intended to view the past is never clearly defined.

Butler (who initially appears as our emcee, Talisman) opens the show like a guitar-strumming camp counselor, gathering us around the fire for some wistful ghost stories, while costume designer Heather McDevitt Barton approaches each time period with a clichéd hand (a giant bow for the clever but innocent Rosealia; and a slick leather jacket for Bobby, the James Dean look-alike). All signs suggest that we're in for something akin to side-by-side episodes of Wishbone rather than a scrutinizing look at these three eras of American history. And yet, the latter portion of the show — which features one particularly jarring tonal shift — subverts that expectation in a way that leaves us more confused than moved by the suddenly changing winds.

Even so, there's something poignant about the acknowledgment that not all stories end happily — or at all, if memories and artifacts can pick up where human beings left off. So do you hold on to all the "stuff" to keep these people and their stories alive? Or does it just weigh down your wandering soul, as the final song seems to suggest? For such an object-focused production, you'd expect Folk Wandering to shed some more light on this central question, but instead, we're left to wonder as we wander.