Theater review: ‘Flyin' West' gives us all something to think about

Theatre in the Square has announced it's closing. Performances of "Flyin' West" have been suspended.

There’s no mistaking the compact boundaries of Marietta’s Theatre in the Square for the sprawling prairie of 1898 Kansas. But that’s OK, because “Flyin’ West,” an early work (1992) by the estimable Atlanta playwright Pearl Cleage (“Blues for an Alabama Sky,” “A Song for Coretta”), tells a decidedly intimate story.

Set in a modest farm house near an all-black homesteading community called Nicodemus, the play follows a close-knit group of women pioneers who’ve left behind the ongoing oppression of Jim Crow in the Deep South for the promise of staking their own claims on the new frontier of the Old West. Whether they’re “in the middle of nowhere” or “at the center of the world” depends on who’s speaking. To quote one of them, “If nothing else, there’s plenty of room.”

Solidly directed by Melissa Foulger, the Square’s “Flyin’ West” features some of the finest acting talents in town. Although she sometimes overplays the manliness of the character, Marguerite Hannah otherwise provides the show with a genuine backbone as the fiercely independent Sophie.

At the heart of the story are Sophie’s adoptive sisters, Fannie and Minnie, respectively portrayed by Cynthia D. Barker and Joy Brunson with a mutual grace and intelligence that transcends their rather conventional romantic subplots. While Fannie falls for a kindly neighbor, Minnie deals with a hellish husband.

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That leaves the soul of the piece to the aged Miss Leah, the surrogate matriarch of this extended family. As feisty as she is frail, by turns comic relief and philosophical commentator, it’s occasionally tempting to dismiss her as a stock character. As capable as she is, it’s also tantamount to a stock performance coming from Donna Biscoe, who has done variations of it many times before.

The men in Cleage’s plays are rarely drawn with as much dimension as her women. Here, the stalwart E. Roger Mitchell acquits himself nicely in the one-note role of Fannie’s devoted love interest. As (over)written, Minnie’s villainous husband is the story’s weakest link, a singularly melodramatic caricature. But, as ineffectually performed by Nadir Mateen, who struggles to hold his own opposite his more seasoned co-stars, he never poses a very real threat.

The more out-of-hand he gets, the less down-to-earth the play. To be sure, what gives “Flyin’ West” its humanity are those warm and resilient women, who come across as identifiable people and not mere personifications of feminism or ethnicity. There’s a timeless power in their observations about gender and race, about their social and political and economic hardships, that keeps the show from ever feeling like a historical lecture.

Cleage’s climax seems hokey and half-baked, kind of a thinking woman’s alternative to a gag worthier of Tyler Perry’s Madea. Just the same, it’s so well established and executed by Foulger’s actresses, the opening-night audience ate it up with sheer delight. The way to a man’s heart may be through his stomach, as the cliché goes, but “Flyin’ West” serves a far better purpose as food for thought.

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