Tuesday, November 8, 2016

The Oregon Trail—Portland Center Stage—Pearl District

“Back to the Future”

This expansive drama is written by Bekah Brunstetter and directed by Rose Riordan.  It is playing at their space at The Armory, 128 NW 11th Ave. (parking can be a challenge in this area, so plan your time accordingly), through November 20th.  For more information, go to their site at www.pcs.org or call 503-445-3700.

I was totally unaware back in the 90’s there was a computer game called “The Oregon Trail.”  Working at Hewlett-Packard, though, for a number of years back then, I knew engineers had their own computer games, mainly ones involving wizards and knights and dragons.  And once, a computer savvy co-worker and myself, broke into their secret world to play one of these games with a decidedly spooky outcome (I’ll let you in on it at the end of this review).

This story spans from the 1800’s to the present day.  It seems that a middle-schooler named Jane (Sarah Baskin) is pretty much a loner, having no friends and never socializing (or bathing) and eating only junk food.  Her only obsession, besides being sad all the time, is playing a computer game called, “The Oregon Trail.”  It’s one of those games that asks you questions along the way as to what choices you want to make and then it continues accordingly to that.

That is, most games do.  This one seems to have a mind of its own (Jane’s alter-ego/conscience?).  The Voice (Leif Norby), in this case, seems to reflect the thoughts of Jane and nudges her in certain directions.  And when Jane plays the game, it comes to life in the background, following closely, possibly, the real life journey or her own ancestors.  There is the father, Clancy (Norby, again) and his two daughters, Jane (Alex Leigh Ramirez) and Mary Anne (Emily Yetter), leaving the security of the “civilized” lifestyle and forging a trail on a covered wagon to Oregon.

Meanwhile, back at modern Jane’s homestead, she has grown up into a woman in her 20’s and living with her sister (Yetter, again).  But she is still very sad, has no real job, sleeps a lot, still eats junk food and feels generally worthless.  Her sister is a nurse and works hard and tries to influence Jane to make an effort to change but to no avail.  Jane even attempts a meeting with her high school crush, the jock, Billy (Chris Murray), but he seems also without a purpose or any ambition, so it’s another dead-end.

Her only hope seems to lie in the computer game and the plight of her ancestors.  They, too, had insurmountable odds but somehow soldiered on.  Through tragedy, the pioneer Jane continues to forge onward…. I can’t tell you the outcome without being a spoiler, which I won’t do.  But, know this, the underlying theme is about being clinically depressed, not just sad.  It focuses on many of the symptoms of the disease.  In order to combat it, before it gets too serious, possibly, eventually leading to suicide, having a good attitude and a support team is important, as the play suggests, but it is also important to realize you have a problem and then getting professional help.

I loved the contrasting stories and especially the wry voice of the Narrator as it gave a deeper substance to the inner self of Jane.  Riordan has cast it well and kept the story understandable, even when jumping back and forth through centuries.  I especially liked Baskin, as the unsettled girl, as you felt repulsion at her, then felt sorry for her, and finally a certain kinship with her and her tenacity.  A rocky road for an actor to traverse and she does it very well.  Also Norby, as the Voice, the “Jiminey Cricket” to Jane, added a sarcastic humor to the story, which is much needed.  Altogether, a well-meshed cast.

And now, for the finale, to my computer-game adventure.  While playing the game, we knew there were certain expected answers to the questions, so we decided to throw it for a loop and see what it would do.  When a character helped our hero, it asked, how should he be rewarded.  We replied, “Kill him.”  The computer replied, “Repeat.”  We said this a second time and there was a long pause.  Finally the computer replied, “The son-of-a-bitch ran away and you’ll never see him again!”  And then the screen went blank.  Never did discover what happened but we could also never get into the games again, either.  Freaky, huh?

I recommend this play but, be aware, there is nudity and harsh language in it, if that offends you.  If you do choose to see it, please tell them Dennis sent you.