Too little direction in ‘The Way West’

“We’re special,” declares Mom (an unnervingly hearty Anne Darragh in flannel shirt and baggy jeans), addressing the audience at the beginning of Mona Mansour’s “The Way West.” “We look death square in the eye. … We tell stories! And sing songs!” Accordingly, she launches into a gory tale of a woman and coyote in the desert.

It’s the first of Mom’s series of proud pronouncements and pioneer stories about the hardy folks of the westward expansion. She considers herself a true Westerner, one of that heroic breed.

The two-act play is receiving a West Coast premiere at Marin Theatre Company, which gave the show its Sky Cooper New American Play prize in 2013.

Mom’s two adult daughters, Amanda (Kathryn Zdan) and Michele (Rosie Hallett), are her onstage audience.

Interspersed with the monologues and a few simple ditties that the three sing (old-timey music composed by Sam Misner and Megan Pearl Smith) is a more immediate story: Mom is bankrupt, having given all her money, apparently, to a friend (Stacy Ross) to launch what turns out to be a bogus business venture.

Amanda has arrived from Chicago to take charge of Mom’s finances but is getting very little help from Mom herself, who’s strangely unperturbed by the mess she’s in, or from caregiver-daughter Michele, whose own life is a disaster.

Also, Mom has some sort of undiagnosed condition, probably meant to be metaphorical, that is causing incremental paralysis of her limbs.

So the question arises: Is this primarily a satire of the myth of the Old West? Mom’s stories of hardship on the wagon trains, not especially engaging, are played for laughs. Or is it primarily a serious-minded but humorous examination of the American Dream gone bust? All four women, even career-girl Amanda, face financial ruin.

Is it a dysfunctional-family comedy in the Sam Shepard mode, but with women?

And what about the poignant scene between Amanda and an old boyfriend (Hugo E. Carbajal) — how does that fit in?

The problem is, there’s a tonal disconnect throughout, both in the writing and in Hayley Finn’s direction. Most of the actors are playing quite broadly, presumably in an effort to ratchet up the laughs — disconcerting when, for example, Mom’s describing death and dismemberment along the westward trail. Are we in black comedy territory here?

Amid the stylistic uncertainty, the central character, Mom, as written, never truly comes into focus.

REVIEW

The Way West

Presented by Marin Theatre Company

Where: 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley

When: Tuesdays-Sundays; closes May 10

Tickets: $20 to $53

Contact: (415) 388-5208, www.marintheatre.org

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