BWW Review: THE THANKSGIVING PLAY: Pardon Our Political Correctness
The Thanksgiving Play
Written by Larissa FastHorse, Directed by Scott Edmiston; Scenic Design, Janie E. Howland; Costume Design, Rachel Padula-Shufelt; Lighting Design, Karen Perlow; Sound Design and Original Music, Dewey Dellay; Props Artisan, Jennifer Butler; Production Stage Manager, Diane McLean; Assistant Stage Manager, Betsy Pierce
Get in the mood for the rapidly approaching holiday season by going to the Lyric Stage Company of Boston's production of The Thanksgiving Play, a sharp and funny satire by Native American playwright Larissa FastHorse that holds a mirror up to reflect the craziness of political correctness on steroids. How does a quartet of white theater artists tell the Thanksgiving story and honor Native American Heritage Month in a 45-minute elementary school play without offending anyone while being historically accurate? Very carefully, and not without numerous false starts, each one more ridiculous than the last, until not to decide is to decide.
FastHorse scripts a wild ride that Director Scott Edmiston wrangles into a delectable offering, thanks to the great ensemble work and comedic skills of Amanda Collins (Logan), Jesse Hinson (Jaxton), Barlow Adamson (Caden), and Grace Experience (Alicia). Logan is a drama teacher who is anxious to create a meaningful play while responding to the requirements of several overseers. Her boyfriend Jaxton is an earthy-crunchy, yoga-loving street performer who is uber-supportive of Logan's needs, and together they aspire to be allies to people of all stripes and beliefs. Caden, a geeky third grade teacher, is their history expert and wannabe playwright, and Alicia is a beautiful actress from Los Angeles hired to provide the Native American perspective to the project.
As different as they are from each other, the characters share their whiteness and varying degrees of cluelessness about the subject matter they're trying to dramatize and the unrepresented people whose viewpoint is essential to an accurate narrative. Even as she is making gentle fun of her characters, FastHorse draws them sympathetically, making them likable and making it clear that no one has a nefarious agenda. Simply, their desire to do the right thing far exceeds their capacity to do so. Watching them interact with each other, we see a broad range of reactions, with patience, frustration, and confusion topping the list.
For those of you who think it might be easy to devise an appropriate play, FastHorse provides brief interstitial scenes, a series of vignettes inspired by actual teachers' Pinterest boards showing lame attempts to put on a Thanksgiving play. Edmiston has fun staging these snippets, with a big assist from costume designer Rachel Padula-Shufelt. They serve as examples of what many of us probably grew up with in elementary school, as well as what Logan et al are trying desperately to avoid in their devised educational piece. Knowing that this is satire, it makes it easy to relax and laugh at it, although if we're being honest, we are actually laughing at ourselves.
Significant points hiding in plain sight in The Thanksgiving Play include the seriousness with which Logan and Jaxton take themselves, Caden's need to explicitly follow the history as he knows it, and Alicia's buy-in to the American beauty culture. The more serious the characters become, the more ridiculous they are and the funnier the play becomes. Adding to the overall enjoyment is a feeling of nostalgia, visually evoked by Janie E. Howland's classroom design, the visceral connection to this most American of holidays (be it positive or negative), and the experience of sitting in the dark and laughing with a bunch of strangers who share our love of good theater.
Photo credit: Glenn Perry (Jesse Hinson, Amanda Collins)