By Daniel Skora
It’s not always an easy decision to leave one’s homeland and migrate to another country. That which pushes you out is often counterbalanced by what pulls you back in. To a great extent, that push and pull is what “Ambition Facing West”, the current presentation of Puzzle Piece Theatre, is about. Playwright Anthony Clarvoe’s drama follows the movement of members of a Croatian family who leave the country of their birth and head west seeking to better their fortunes. It’s a theatrically demanding story as Clarvoe and the Puzzle Piece tell it, with time and place in constant flux, crossing paths many times. In addition, several in the cast of seven play multiple parts, including a few who play not only their character but their character’s parent as well.
The play has its beginning in 1910 Croatia and a linear exposition of the storyline goes something like this. America looms large as a land of opportunity and adventure to the Croatian youth Stipan (Joseph Sfair). He is learning English from the local clergyman Father Luka (Sergio Mautone), who senses in the boy the desire to leave for America. Father Luka tries to discourage him because he knows that his country has already lost too many young men who could contribute to the welfare of the nation. Stipan finds encouragement to leave in the person of Ivo (Lindel Salow), who travels to America often and arranges employment for the Croatians males who make the journey. But the pull to stay is strong and persistent. His mother Marija (Laura Heikkinen) begs him to stay because his leaving would cause her and the family great sorrow. He’d also have to give up the companionship of his friend Miss Adamic (Tiaja Sabrie).
Stipan eventually decides to go to America and the play’s setting changes to 1940’s Wyoming, some thirty years into the future. Having married an Italian woman named Josephina (Linda Rabin Hammell) and taken a job working in the mines, Stipan (now played by Lindel Salow) has become a union organizer. He and his wife have a daughter named Alma (also played by Tiaja Sabrie). Alma is a young woman torn between taking care of her invalid mother and realizing her own ambitions. She meets a young man in school named Jim (played, again, by Joseph Sfair) and the two become romantically involved. Eventually, Jim joins the Air Force and is killed in the Second World War. The setting again changes, this time to Japan in the 1980’s. Alma (Laura Heikkinen) is now a high-powered business executive traveling to the orient on her job. She brings with her her son Joey (Joshua Daniel Palmer), who eventually falls under the influence of a Zen master and leaves his mother. To be clear, all these events unfold in random order, occasionally even when a person from a previous time and place is still on the set,
So what are we to make of this play called “Ambition Facing West”? In its broadest terms, its theme is a simple one: the grass is always greener on the other side, but what price must be paid to be able to enjoy the pleasures it holds. Judging by what becomes of the next generations, the price they pay for their ambition is a lofty one. The play is also about parents and their relationships with their children.
“Ambition Facing West” is a rich tapestry that deals with family, country, and ethnicity on the face, and with the more personal issues of ambition, self fulfillment, and freedom on that hazier oblique side. The play is directed by D. B. Schroeder, who’s first go at producing the show was ten years ago in Chicago. Here he’s crafted a deeply moving and intense portrait of three generations of a family as they move from the security of being a close-knit family to confronting challenging experiences of an indifferent world.
“Ambition’s Facing West” is a play that’s truly meant for a theatre named Puzzle Piece. With each successive scene, the play’s intentions become clearer. Schroeder minimizes the play’s structural challenges in a variety of ways. He uses different lighting motifs to help establish place. A soundtrack of recordings relevant to each time period provides oral context. Costumes (by Laura Heikkinen) help eliminate much of the confusion caused by actors playing several characters. The set, also by Schroeder, is a torrent of wood. At one corner there’s a small pool cut out of the floor for Young Alma to play with her little boat and the center of the stage is strewn with rubber mulch representing the earth of the various locations where the play takes place.
Schroeder has assembled a top notch cast of actors. There bio’s in the program attest to the international flavor they bring to the show, and they’re all capable of handling the accents required of the characters. For those who are able to remain attentive and perceptive to this wonderfully stimulating and passionate play, the rewards are great.
“Ambition Facing West” runs through October 16th. Tickets are available online at www.puzzlestage.org, by phone at 313.258.3885, or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org with number of tickets and desired performance indicated. Puzzle Piece Theatre (remember, performances take place at the Slipstream Theatre) is located at 460 Hilton in Ferndale.