BWW Review: NOMAD MOTEL at Unicorn Theatre
Unicorn Theater, as part of its commitment to the "National New Play Network," presents the rolling national premiere of "Nomad Motel," a new play by playwright Carla Ching (who was present for the opening). The five person, two act, two hour fifteen minute play tells the story of growing up in a conflicted California and an even more conflicted America.
Already produced in Pittsburgh and Atlanta, "Nomad Motel" offers up a dire situation (unfamiliar in this iteration) to Midwestern audiences as it continues production in a development process before a hoped for off-Broadway, New York opening in 2020. Three high-school seniors find themselves in situations not of their making and struggle through their transitions to young adulthood. The play is set in Huntington Beach, Surf City, Orange County, California south suburban adjacent to Los Angeles and close to Disneyland.
Alix (Annie Schwaner) is your typical high school senior. Mom Fiona (Heidi Van) appears to be a minor film and commercial actress who has settled into a comfortable suburban lifestyle with Alix and her two younger brothers until the father/breadwinner leaves the family. They have lost their home and have functionally run out of money.
The family lives a nomadic existence moving between discount motels while attempting to keep up appearances. Fiona schemes to restart her career and maintain her family. Times are getting tougher for Alix. She works at a fast food restaurant and tries to contribute to the family support. The pressure is getting to her. She may not graduate high school and is giving up on her dream of a career in landscape design.
Mason (Eric Palmquist) is a quiet, kind, retiring, smart classmate of Alix and her classroom partner. He is not who he seems. Mason is what is called a parachute kid. Although he speaks entirely without accent, Mason is an illegal Chinese national from Hong Kong. Mason's Mom is deceased. His Father James (Walter Coppage) has purchased a nice home for Mason in a nice neighborhood, but Mason lives there alone. James irregularly checks in by video conference and pays the bills, but James' life is in Asia. James' hope for Mason is that he will gain entry into an elite American business college. Mason's dream is to become a musician.
Growing increasingly more desperate, Fiona parks her two younger children with a friend and instructs Alix to make do on her own while Fiona relocates closer to jobs in LA. Alix briefly moves in with her Latino ex-boyfriend Oscar (Justin Barron). Oscar is a failed product of the foster care system. Together they squat in an empty convenience store. Alix now regards Oscar as a friend. He has other ideas. She flees.
Alix and Mason are thrown together. He has a place to live. She needs one. He lives in fear of being discovered. His Dad has dropped out of communication. Together, one encourages the other and they fashion a life that grows from friendship and partnership to something more.
The parents re-emerge and attempt to re-direct their children into traditional paths, but the kids bond is strong and they resist.
"Nomad Hotel" is an interesting exploration of homelessness and growing up in America by folks who seem like they should (by rights) not be experiencing this trauma. It is strongly performed and worth seeing at this point in its march to New York.
"Nomad Hotel" seems worthy if still a little unsure of itself. Ms. Ching has approached multitudes of threats.... homelessness, hunger, the foster care system, family abandonment, parenting, immigration, parachute children, social isolation, coming of age, career choices, and parental pressure among others without coalescing around a single firm storyline that she wants the audience to leave the theater discussing. There is an attempt to bring a resolution as the play ends, but it feels more like an escape without a plan than an ending. Ms. Ching will surely focus and continue development toward more dominant themes, but there is something new here and worth pursuing.
The play is performed in the smaller (the Jerome stage) of the two Unicorn auditoriums. Two seating areas of about fifty comfortable (and apparently new) seating on risers address the stage from what would ordinarily by stage left and stage right. Emily Swenson's inventive setting and projections maintain needed illusions without overpowering the story. Video projections visible from all angles of the seating area advance the storyline. Co-directors Andi Meyer and Ian Crawford offer credible if occasionally overwrought direction to what are (at times) tense situations. The cast does a very good job, especially Ms. Schwaner. Ms. Van and Mr. Coppage are excellent in their more limited roles.
"Nomad Hotel" continues at Unicorn Theater through February 17. Tickets are available at the Unicorn website www.unicorntheatre.org or by telephone at 816-531-7529.
Photos courtesy of Unicorn Theatre and Cynthia Levin.