Reviewed by George and Audrey Basler
Hollywood has pretty much cemented the myths of the American West even if the myths have a tenuous connection to reality.
There’s John Wayne perched on a horse with six-shooters blazing, or Gary Cooper striding alone down Main Street to confront the bad guys.
In all these myths, women are conspicuously absent — either pushed into the background or ignored completely, as is the case in the popular spaghetti Westerns of the 1960s.
But, myths aside, women played key roles in the settling of the West as school teachers, mail-order brides, settlers’ wives and, yes, women of ill repute. These are the people featured in Judith Present’s uneven new dramatic work, Women Who Tamed the West, which premieres this weekend at the Roberson Museum & Science Center in Binghamton.
Present, a playwright and founding member of Theatricks by Starlight in Deposit, is known for her play War: What’s It For?, which has played in many venues across the region.
As is the case with War: What’s It For?, Present conceived and wrote Women Who Tamed the West as a series of dramatic monologues, interspersed with music and dances. Six female and two male actors play multiple roles.
The play is intended to dramatize the many reasons why women went west, said Present, who is a history buff. “It’s not so much the dates and times, but the human characters that interest me,” she said.
What comes through loud and clear in Women Who Tamed the West is that settling the West was hardly a glamorous undertaking. Present is at her best portraying the hardships and heartaches women faced as they moved across the country, and their determination in meeting them.
But the work is an uneven one, sometimes playing more like an extended history lesson than a dramatic presentation. And, as affecting as some of the monologues are, they are not tied together in a coherent fashion. Moreover, the work lacks the sense of a dramatic arc.
To write the play, Present did extensive research on the roles women played in the West. She then created fictional characters based on the research.
Some of the scenes are informative. I never knew women went west to work as doctors and dentists after being rejected by the Eastern medical establishment. But they did, and Present tells their stories.
Some of the scenes, such as the death of a woman from childbirth, are emotionally compelling. The monologues in which women describe how they coped with the deaths of their husbands are also effective.
Particularly affecting, at least to me, was the monologue of a woman who was taken captive by Native Americans as a young child and later recaptured and returned unwillingly to white society. The character (like everyone in the play) is nameless but bears a resemblance to the real-life Cynthia Ann Parker, who was captured by Comanches as a 9-year-old and grew to love her captors. She became known as the “White Squaw” and refused to return to society until being captured by Texas Rangers in 1860.
Some of the monologues, however, fall emotionally flat from a lack of depth. Present introduces mail-order brides, but in too sketchy a fashion to be affecting. The audience never knows what made them take this drastic step and what their lives were like after their arrivals.
Likewise, Present presents the prostitutes as kind of comic figures when, in reality, their lives were about as funny as smallpox. And a monologue in which a woman passes as a man falls flat and comes off as too cartoon-like. (This did happen, however. One such person, “Miss Tom Pollard,” came from Binghamton, moved West, disguised herself as a man and worked in the mines — look it up!)
While Present’s work is uneven, the acting by the eight performers was consistently good on opening night (Friday, May 16). Cast members are Dave Adams, Kathryn Boczar, Charlene Caramore, John Carey, Maryann Johnson, Carolyn Christy-Boyden and Debbie Fisher. They all do solid work as they attempt to bring the characters to life.
However, with all due respect, the male roles are superfluous and detract from the work’s dramatic impact. Present would be better served using a female narrator, possibly giving brief historic backgrounds to some of the scenes.
“I do admire these women, what they did,” Present said in an interview before the opening.
This admiration comes through, and Present deserves credit for salvaging frontier women from anonymity. It’s an effort that opens a door to the past but not wide enough to completely hit its mark.
IF YOU GO: Performances continue at 7:30 p.m. today (May 17) and 2 p.m. Sunday (May 18) in the Roberson Center ballroom, 30 Front St., Binghamton. General admission tickets are $12; call 772-0660, or purchase at the door.