Jeremy J. Kamps’ fascinating, poetic Breitwisch Farm, directed by Ryan Quinn and now enjoying its World Premiere in New York City, takes place on a small organic farm on the outskirts of the fictional town of Goose Creek, Wisconsin. It’s what one of the characters calls “flyover country”, and a culture that’s idealized by some as the “real America”. Everyone knows everyone else. High school football rules. And, most importantly: This being Wisconsin, when the Green Bay Packers are playing, it’s an event that’s more anticipated than the second coming of the Messiah. Nevertheless, the seemingly static lives of Kamps’ characters can’t avoid being affected by the issues of our country at large– including but not limited to ethnic prejudice, economic challenges (AKA foreclosure and credit card debt), and political divide. In a similar way, the small performance space of Manhattan’s tiny Town Stages (which gives new meaning to the term “intimate”) becomes the setting for an unblinking spontaneous combustion of drama: Breitwisch Farm is a searing, no-holes-barred saga of life in the REAL “real America”.
The “Breitwisch Farm” of the show’s title is owned by a woman named Connie: the ninth character of the play whom the audience never meets, but whose omnipresence is palpable throughout. The farm is home to Delores Navarro (Maria Peyramaure), a high-spirited but no-nonsense Mexican woman with a work ethic of concrete and an equally strong commitment to her faith. She’s also an illegal alien. Her son Oscar (Alejandro Rodriguez) is valedictorian of Goose Creek High and the captain of the football team. Despite Oscar’s father Carlos having been taken away by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the teen celeb maintains an infectious energy and wit, alternating between English and Spanish with charismatic fluidity. He dreams about escaping Goose Creek through football. His friend and classmate Bree (Katie Wieland) is a cute but blunt-spoken loner who prefers Friday night McDonald’s and weed to Friday night lights. The slow pace of Breitwisch Farm is interrupted by the arrival of Connie’s son Webster Breitwisch (Joe Tapper), a dedicated human rights activist who had spent five years in Rwanda until being beaten (with the scars to prove it) and expelled from the country. Upon his return, Web meets up with his sister Leena (Katie Hartke)as well as his his former classmate and ideological foil, the right-leaning high school principal Jimmy Feucht (Charlie Murphy). Encouraged by the 2011 win of Scott Walker as Wisconsin’s governor, Feucht considers a career in politics himself– and, adding insult to injury to the progressive-leaning Web, he announces that the “frackers”– who have their eyes on Breitwisch Farm– have offered to finance his campaign. Needless to say, tensions start to boil between the two men, with Web espousing a globalist viewpoint and Feucht clinging to the generic Republican manifesto, complete with disparaging remarks about Obama and immigrants. The play even inserts a timely AR-15 reference.
Meanwhile, Web finds a more pleasurable relationship with Zainabu (“Zai”, played by Dayana Esperenza
), a pretty and smart African-American twenty-something who works at the farm largely because of her creed of environmental sustainability and simple living– symbolized perfectly by her precious compost heap. Despite ideological and age differences, Web and Zai slowly develop a love connection. We hope that their idiosyncratic pairing will work out. Will Web stay on the farm? Or will Zai go with Web on his next mission? Most importantly, will the Green Bay Packers win the Super Bowl?
Sadly, the characters’ collective strengths– Oscar’s youthful ebullience, Delores’ loyalty and faith, Web’s social awareness, and Zai’s strong-willed commitment to Mother Earth– can’t overcome the more powerful social, political, and economic forces swirling around the farm borders (Nor, for that matter, can some of the characters’ blissful ignorance protect them…). Life in this small Badger State community gets very chaotic very quickly. When Oscar and his fellow Mexican teammates stage a sit-in to protest their racist coach, crippling tragedy comes to our young hero with the unexpected jolt of a quarterback sneak. The violent plot twist may seem heavy handed– but given what we see on the news on a daily basis lately, it’s anything but unbelievable. Shortly afterward, an unlikely romance between between Delores and Feucht raises its stakes, ultimately leading to less-than-romantic consequences. At the same time, Web and Zai’s new relationship is also put to the test when Web considers going to Mexico. Conflict emerges: optimism versus realism, loyalty versus opportunism, and the decades-old schism between the “old” America” versus the “new” America. In the last act of Breitwisch Farm, a decision is made which is guaranteed to affect all of its characters in a big way.
The main dramatis personae in Breitwisch Farm are all fully developed and multi-dimensional. It’s useless to simply judge who’s “right” or “wrong”; the characters are far more complex than that. The performances of this young, energetic cast are superb . As Delores, Maria Peyramaure is a delightful force of nature. As Oscar, Alejandro Rodriguez is also a dazzling standout. If Rodriguez’ Oscar is the town’s quarterback hero, Katie Wieland’s strangely lovable Bree makes the perfect “anti-cheerleader”. Joe Tapper as Web and Dayana Esperenza as Zai are perfectly matched: When the audience finally gets to see the long-anticipated consummation of their emotions (directed and acted with perfect honesty and realism), one of the audience members was heard whispering to another, “It’s about time!”. Adding some mirthful levity to the drama is Will Manning as Randy, Leena’s ex-husband and the so-called “town drunkard”. It’s a part the actor plays exceedingly well; Manning’s comedic talents elevate the role beyond that of just being a one-note clown. As first impression, Katie Hartke as Leena initially seems too sophisticated to play a redneck woman and too young to play the mother of a teenager… but she soon becomes very believable and quite sympathetic. In the challenging role of a patently UNsympathetic character, Charlie Murphy plays Jimmy Feucht with perfect nuance.
Breitwisch Farm may be a fictional place, but by the conclusion of Jeremy J. Kamps’ play– which is no less than stunning– we really care about what happens to these residents of Goose Creek, Wisconsin after we leave the theater. More than a slice of life, consider this
would-be should-be classic play to be a slice of the new American pie. Esperance Theater Company’s Breitwisch Farm
continues through Saturday, March 17th at Town Stages
, 221 West Broadway, New York City. Learn more and get tickets at www.Esperancetheatercompany.org
(All photos by William Edward Marsh.)