BWW Review: Good Intentions Lead You Know Where in Scathing Comedy THE THANKSGIVING PLAY, at Artists Rep
In an interview about THE THANKSGIVING PLAY, Sicangu Lakota playwright Larissa FastHorse said: "My biggest enemy in American theatre is a well-meaning liberal person." She shows us why in the play, now having its world premiere at Artists Rep. In it, FastHorse soundly skewers a group of white well-meaning liberals for being so focused on not giving offense that they can't do anything meaningful at all. It's funny, biting, and often much closer to the truth than it's comfortable to admit.
THE THANKSGIVING PLAY is one of three (count 'em, THREE!) plays by Native American women getting premieres in Oregon this year.
Here's how it goes down: Logan (Sarah Lucht) is a high school drama teacher who has received a grant to create a play about Thanksgiving for Native American Heritage Month. She decides on a devised work and enlists the help of her partner Jaxton (Michael O'Connell), a street performer (read: failed actor) and "yoga guy" (he has a day job but doesn't want it to define him); Caden (Chris Harder), a history teacher who shows up with reams of research and dreams of being a playwright; and Alicia (Claire Rigsby), the professional actor who, due to an unfortunate assumption, Logan is relying on to guide them through the maze of creating a culturally sensitive play about a culturally problematic holiday.
For the play's roughly 90-minute runtime, Logan ties herself in knots trying to figure out how to honor Native Americans without speaking for them, Jaxton attempts (more or less sincerely) to not be a privileged white guy, and Caden pushes historical accuracy to the extreme. (Both of the men seem to enjoy the gruesome parts of Thanksgiving history a little too much.) Meanwhile, Alicia would rather amuse herself on Instagram or by staring at the ceiling. They're all well-meaning, and all completely clueless.
Interspersed between the scenes are short videos of highly culturally insensitive Thanksgiving plays performed by children of different ages. They're not real, but they very well could be, which makes them even more disturbing.
THE THANKSGIVING PLAY is funny because it's true. It's also painful because it's true. We self-identified progressives have these conversations all of the time. And although the play makes them easy to laugh at, the mental and verbal contortions we perform to avoid doing or saying anything wrong too often lead to us doing nothing. Sometimes we even manage to talk ourselves into believing that doing nothing is actually a good thing.
Artists Rep's production is masterfully executed, with Luan Schoolers' direction milking the satire and the scathing for all they're worth. As Logan, Lucht is a tightly wound ball of anxiety, worrying not just about the work they're devising, but also about her career, her looks (though she would never it), and her relationship with Jaxton. McConnell portrays the enlightened-most-of-the-time white guy perfectly. Harder is charming as always, but this time it's because he's awkward. And Rigsby's Alicia is so earnestly simple and open that I started to wonder if she was onto something with those ceiling tiles.
THE THANKSGIVING PLAY is a funny play, but it's not an easy play. Especially in progressive Portland, its message might be a little tough to take. But that makes it all the more important for us to listen.
THE THANKSGIVING PLAY runs through April 29. Later this year, it's getting its New York premiere. You'd best see it now. Details and tickets here.
Photo credit: Russell J. Young