BWW Review: RETURN TO NIOBRARA at The Rose Theater Deserves the Praise
I finally got to see what all the fuss is about. RETURN TO NIOBRARA is running at the Rose Theatre until February 10. Reviews unanimously resound with high praise for this world premiere of a play with Omaha roots. I have to say...I agree with all of it. It's an exceptional show that entertains and shares a bit of Native American culture and history.
The script, written by Mary Kathryn Nagle, is clever. She intertwines the struggles of current day middle schooler Steven with those of his ancestor, Chief Standing Bear. Steven has been suspended from school for throwing the first punch at a classmate for calling him Pocahontas. Chief Standing Bear has been forced off his farmland by an unethical government. Both, taking the stage individually or simultaneously, tell the same tale. They are strong, resilient people willing to stand up for what is right. Steven goes to court to sue the school for violation of his right to retain his cultural identity. Chief Standing Bear goes to court to sue the government for the right to be considered a person under the law.
RETURN TO NIOBRARA is more than a name. It's Chief Standing Bear's 600 mile walk from Oklahoma back to his home to bury the bones of his son. It's the trip to the land of his ancestors for Steven who is searching for his place in the world. Ms. Nagle has written a play layered in meaning and supported with facts. She encourages truth. "Tell your parents what you want," the doctor advises Bear Shield as he lies dying and doesn't know what he should say to them. Steven cannot utter a lie and deny his religion to win his fight in court. She writes in parallels: the president and the superintendent, the principal and the general. She allows us to form our own opinions without didactic prose. She researches her subject, culling historical remnants from the annals of Omaha and Ponca history. I have great admiration for Ms. Nagle's craftsmanship and for the skillful enactment of her work under the direction of Roxanne Wach.
This is a gifted cast. Albert "Abby" Ybarra as Dad/Chief Standing Bear, Kenny Ramos as Steven/Bear Shield, Allison Hicks (Mom/Susette Primeau), and Nathalie Standingcloud (Betsy/Prairie Flower/Bright Eyes) are valuable additions. Ybarra speaking the Ponca language adds a bit of magic as he stands before us garbed in Sherri Geerdes' authentic looking costume. He transports us to another time and place. As for Ramos, I wasn't sure he could get away with portraying a middle schooler half his age. He sold me. His mannerisms and behavior are completely realistic. Standingcloud easily transitions from Steven's sister Betsy with typically flippant teenage girl behavior to reserved and dignified Bright Eyes and Prairie Flower. Hicks plays both Mom and Susette equally well.
Every member of the cast is excellent without exception.
The ambiance created by the sights and sounds of the theater is remarkable. Stirring sounds of the Native American flute played by Michael Murphy drifts on the air in a haunting melody. Native American music is eerily beautiful. The natural set designed by Kathy Voecks is embellished with Craig S. Moxon's lighting. Netting below the platform catches the light and glimmers. The suggestion of a buffalo hide with Native symbols as a backdrop and red rocks that line the sides of the stage are pleasing on their own and stunning when Brittany Merenda's projection designs offers a surprise at the ending. It's all simple, but effective.
This is a production you could easily return to and get something more from it each time.
Photo Credit: Alex Myhre
Albert (Abby) Ybarra and Kenneth Ramos