The Oregon Trail
A computer game comes to life in this new play from This Is Us producer Bekah Brunstetter.
Let's get the important question out of the way first. Yes, Bekah Brunstetter's new play The Oregon Trail at the McGinn/Cazale Theatre is about the computer game. There is, in fact, a family traveling across the plains in a wagon, a general store where these pioneers can procure bullets for hunting expeditions, and dysentery from which they suffer. But there's also a young woman controlling their fate, and she might be a little better off if she powers down the computer.
With an air of charming individuality, Brunstetter's past plays have explored the bounds of decorum when it comes to young women finding their individual identities. Oohrah!, first presented by Atlantic Theater Company in 2009, examines what it's like to be part of a military family. Be a Good Little Widow, produced by Ars Nova in 2011, follows a young wife as she learns how to adapt to widowhood while battling her unforgiving mother-in-law. The Oregon Trail fits snugly into this oeuvre, a good-natured comedy-drama about fording your way through a river of crippling depression.
The Oregon Trail tells two parallel stories. In one, Brunstetter introduces us to Jane (Liba Vaynberg), an average middle school student who passes the time by fooling around in the computer lab. As she plays this eponymous educational computer game, her characters spring to life. Chief among them is "Then Jane" (Emily Louise Perkins), who has felt blue since the death of her mother, but that doesn't stop her father (Jimmy King) from forcing her and her sister Mary Anne (Laura Ramadei) from starting a journey to the promised land of Oregon.
The whirligig of time eventually catches up to present day Jane (called "Now Jane" in the script), and pretty soon, she's an aimless, jobless twenty-something. Crashing on the counch in the small apartment where her medical professional sister (Ramadei) lives, Jane can't even bring herself to unpack. A chance evening with a former crush (Juan Arturo) has the potential to spring Jane out of her funk, but it's hard to head back out on the road when the feeling of your own uselessness is weighing down upon you.
In creating these two parallel storylines, Brunsteter (currently a producer on the television series This Is Us) is examining the scientific concept of epigenetic inheritance, the idea that a trait or characteristic can be passed down from one generation to the next. Ergo, Brunsetter theorizes that the nameless blues that Then Jane feels in the 1800s is the same (or at least related to) that which Now Jane is currently experiencing.
The subject is heady, and for a good chunk of the play, The Oregon Trail delivers both a nuanced portrait of depression and a gently humanized vision of a game where, for the most part, the main goal was to kill weary travelers from typhoid and write ghoulish non sequiturs on their tombstones. As "Now Jane," Vaynberg skillfully captures that ineffable melancholy that comes with such an illness, while Ramadei delivers an equally recognizable portrait of a family member at her wit's end. King and Perkins are sweetly sad as the wearily traveling father-daughter.
Yet The Oregon Trail also never feels as fully fleshed out as it should be, with the sequences in the 1800s particularly shortchanged toward the end. Director Geordie Broadwater has a strong vision, though; one that includes a life-size wagon (Tristan Jeffers did the set), storybook costumes that span two different generations (by Izzy Fields), and the recognizable Oregon Trail theme song underscoring certain moments (sound design by Chad Raines). Ultimately, despite an uncommon sensitivity in a lot of the writing, a broken axle makes it hard to keep the wheel turning.