By Jeremy J. Kamps; Directed by Ryan Quinn
Produced by Esperance Theater Company
Off Off Broadway, Play
Runs through 3.17.18
Town Stages, 221 West Broadway
by Asya Danilova on 3.7.17
Will Manning and Danaya Esperanza, in Breitwisch Farm. Photo by by William Edward Marsh.
BOTTOM LINE: In this complex and timely play, personal meets political as the struggling American middle class is seen through the life on one farm.
Breitwisch Farm is ambitiously monumental in its scope. The play, by Jeremy J. Kamps, comments on issues of immigration, racism, local politics, global peacemaking, fracking, and organic farming, to name just a few. A macrocosm in a microcosm, this story about a family running a vegetable farm in Wisconsin attempts the daring task of showing the reason Trump was elected.
An homage to The Cherry Orchard, Breitwisch Farm borrows its premise from Chekhov: a family is about to lose their rural land because of debt, but they are not in a rush to act. Indulging in vices and self-pity, holding onto the past, or fantasizing about the future, they refuse to live in the moment. Only this time it is not Russian aristocrats who are threatened, but the American middle class. The parallels between 1903 Russia and 2011 Wisconsin only enrich this absolutely original, feisty, and new American play.
Webster (Joe Tapper) returns from his peacemaking assignment in Africa to the family farm on the outskirts of Goose Creek. During the years of his absence the place and its inhabitants have changed. The matriarch of the family (existing only offstage) is not well and the land is up for foreclosure. But Webster's credit-card-addicted sister Leena (Katie Hartke), and her anxious teenage daughter Bree (Katie Wieland), focus mainly on their own immediate needs. Yet both Hartke and Wieland portray such compelling characters that we root for them and feel their pain. Along with Leena’s redneck ex-husband Randy (Will Manning), they create a nuclear family that is disturbing yet heart-warming. Their obsession with the Packers and the Super Bowl is endearing, making the opening of the second act one of the most memorable scenes.
The farm is mainly run by two field hands, Zai (Danaya Esperanza), a woman of Tanzanian decent adopted by the American family as a kid, and Dolores (Maria Peyramaure), an illegal immigrant from Mexico. The bitter irony is that these are the two who are most invested in the farm and can’t imagine a future without it. Characters like Dolores and her son Oscar (Alejandro Rodriguez), a rising school football star and a Dreamer, are not often seen in theater. Trump’s presidency makes these characters bleed with sorrow. Both Peyramaure and Rodriguez give wonderful performances, making us reflect on cultural heritage as both a source of strength and shame. Finally, there is the conservative Feucht (Charlie Murphy), the principal of the local high school. This seemingly well-meaning and endearingly shy man ends up causing a lot of trouble for the family, with which he is bonded in multiple ways.
The entire ensemble of the Esperance Theater Company, as directed by Ryan Quinn, is simply incredible. The ease with which the members of the cast connect, and the nuanced portrayal of each of their characters, charges this family saga with electrifying truth. The set design by Alexander Woodward cleverly sidesteps a realistic approach by not crowding the tiny space with heavy pieces. Leslie Smith's lighting design involves a lot of varied, practical lights, giving the everyday objects an almost magical quality.
Household items, taken from a large pile in the back of the stage, serve as props, often in a poetic and absurdist manner; strips of photographic film are kindling and the newspapers become lettuce. Sometimes this allows for clever transitions between scenes: pillows that served as firewood become a kneeling bench in a church and the white sheet that was a frozen pond becomes the bedding for two lovers.
The tight space of the newly opened Town Stages provides intimacy with the audience but presents its own challenges. No matter which of the three sides you sit on, an obstructed view of some scenes is inevitable. While I usually am forgiving of this—you can't see every side of a conflict in real life—in Breitwisch Farm there are crucial scenes in which every actor is obscured. Quinn tries his best to make his actors move and change the axis of the action throughout each scene, but the staging requires further polishing. The imperfections of it, however, don’t obscure the overall quality of this timely play.
(Breitwisch Farm plays at Town Stages, 221 West Broadway, through March 17, 2018. The running time is 2 hours 10 minutes with one intermission. Performances are Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Fridays at 7:30; Saturdays at 2 and 7:30. Tickets are $30 and are available at esperancetheatercompany.org.)
Breitwisch Farm is by Jeremy J. Kamps. Directed by Ryan Quinn. Set Design by Alexander Woodward. Lighting Design by Leslie Smith. Costume Design by Kaitlyn McDonald. Sound Deign by William Neal. Stage Management by Emily C Rolston, Kelsy Durkin, and Jenny Plackemeier.
The cast is Danaya Esperanza, Katie Hartke, Will Manning, Charlie Murphy, Maria Peyramaure, Alejandro Rodriguez, Joe Tapper, and Katie Wieland.