Caroline Neff and Zoe Perry
Caroline Neff and Zoe Perry Credit: Michael Brosilow

Meesh: Why would you say that to her?

Manda: It’s the truth.

Meesh: Who cares? —The Way West

Just about a year ago, Steppenwolf Theatre premiered Head of Passes, Tarell Alvin McCraney’s grim American update on the story of Job, in which an elderly Gulf Coast woman is subjected to loss after catastrophic loss. The current Steppenwolf show—Mona Mansour‘s acid satire The Way West—puts a fun-house twist on exactly the same conceit.

Our Job this time is a California matron known only as Mom, who likes nothing better than to spin yarns and sing songs about the pluck of the pioneers who endured the hardships of the Conestoga trail, crossing deserts and mountains and other people’s land to settle the American west. “We all came out, got put to the test,” she rhapsodizes in her best salt-of-the-earth twang.

Not that things are dandy now. Mom’s got hardships to deal with from the moment we meet her. A middle-class house and a car in the garage testify to her having managed to break off a little chunk of the American dream. But she’s in serious danger of losing it, thanks to—well, you can pretty much take your pick. The subprime mortgage scandal? California’s fiscal meltdown? (If it’s dark humor you want, try googling “California economic crisis.” You’ll get a list of options that runs “California economic crisis 2014,” “California economic crisis 2013,” and so on through the years.) A fantasy relationship with credit cards? There’s ample evidence to suggest it’s all of the above.

Mom should be frantic with worry, yet she isn’t. Like some astronaut from The Right Stuff, she likes to keep an even strain as she hurtles through space on her flaming rocket of debt. So she cultivates the zen of magical thinking. And she’s a master at it too. Told that she needs to declare bankruptcy, she serenely replies that that’s not really necessary—she’s already stopped paying her bills.

Which leaves it up to her two grown daughters, Amanda and Michelle, to worry for her. Unfortunately, Michelle, aka Meesh, is less than helpful in this regard, as illustrated by the fact that she used Mom’s credit card to buy $3,500 worth of Elizabeth Arden Visible Difference skin cream, figuring to resell it on eBay. A good deal of the comedy in The Way West derives from Meesh’s astonishingly adaptive sense of morality.

Amanda, on the other hand, is the responsible one. Or at least the most rule-oriented of the trio. She’s come back home from Chicago, where she makes a reasonable living writing grants, to put Mom’s messy affairs in order and get her safely into Chapter 11. It’s nowhere near that simple, of course. Not only do Mom and Meesh respond like the proverbial unherdable cats, but lots of other things start falling apart. Lots of them. Shelah, the Job of Head of Passes, certainly has her share of tribulations: sickness, death and natural disaster. But Mom, Meesh, and Manda are up against the American way of life and its delusions—especially the delusions of progress, of work equaling security, of endless opportunity and burgeoning prosperity. There’s no comparison. Playwright Mansour piles on a horrible, hilarious litany of disasters that leaves the three Ms occupying a burned-out room in an abandoned, jackal-infested suburb, getting a lecture on probity from a pizza delivery guy.

The challenge for a director is to indulge the extremity of Mansour’s burlesque without losing the thread of humanity that makes that burlesque worth sitting through. Amy Morton manages the job nicely. The songs that punctuate the action, in particular, have “whimsy trap” written all over them. Morton avoids getting snared by treating them in a more or less Brechtian manner, as a means of uniting narrative concerns with the political argument.

Like the production itself, Deirdre O’Connell’s Mom is just the right amount of dissociated, especially when she’s insisting that the most dire physical anomalies are nothing to worry about. Caroline Neff brings a nice, understated manipulativeness to Meesh, giving us casual indications that she’s not as stupid as her Daisy Maes might suggest. And Zoe Perry makes sense of Manda’s evolution from voice of sanity to screech of despair—that screech, by the way, making her sound remarkably like her mother, Laurie Metcalf.

Ira Amyx is the picture of wounded pride as the pizza guy, while Gabriel Ruiz is all we have to understand about Manda’s idea of the American dream, playing her old hometown boy friend. Finally, Steppenwolf artistic director Martha Lavey gets a couple of delightful set pieces, playing Tress, a friend of Mom’s who’s out to express her pioneer spirit by opening a spa where customers are wrapped in Saran Wrap and doused with magic water.