The final show in the Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey’s season, Across the Wide and Lonesome Prairie, by Julie Jensen is a joint production with the Growing Stage in Netcong. Unfortunately, the contrast between the play’s two producers seems to reflect its own struggle. Across the Wide and Lonesome Prairie cannot decide whether it wants to be a play geared towards children or adults and so instead, it pitches it somewhere in between. That would be the play’s only failing, as all of the other elements needed for a strong production come together, including the cast, two actresses playing thirteen year-old girls, the staging and the brilliantly conceived and executed set and costume designs.
Jane Keitel and Lori Lawrence play two thirteen year-old girls, Hattie and Pepper, who are coming of age and befriend each other amid the dangers of the Oregon Trail in a covered wagon train. The two girls, Hattie and Pepper could not be more opposite; where Hattie is strong willed and mischievous, Pepper is demure, mature, maternal, obedient and introverted. An unlikely pairing, they make a fine wagon train, tween version of The Odd Couple. Hattie is looking for a partner in crime and Pepper is trying to deal with her insecurities, her manic mother, whom Pepper describes as being like a wasp, all “buzzing and stinging.” As a matter of fact, by giving each character a name that suggests the opposite of their personality, Hattie is peppy; Pepper is modest and is a plain Jane type, Julie Jensen shows the brilliance lying at the core of her play. Jensen also makes good use of Hattie’s ribald personality, constantly scaring her friend with stories of the failed Donner Party. This also shows Hattie’s manipulative side, as she cons Pepper into giving her some of her wood after saying, “[The Donner Party] They was selfish and didn’t share, so they perished and ate each other.”
Despite looking much older than thirteen, which helps in the show’s brief prologue, when the girls have become women, Jane Keitel and Lori Lawrence carry this two-hander with great grace and aplomb, mining the play for both its humor and poignancy. Furthermore, director John Pietrowski helps move the play along, especially all of the physical business, which is quite impressive and a highlight. Apart from the two actresses who work very hard, doing a yeoman’s job carrying the show on their shoulders, the set and lighting designer Drew Francis deserves special kudos. The stage of the Playwrights Theatre in Madison has been utterly transformed, covered in earth, to represent the stops on the wagon train. This design is used to great effect by both the director and the actors. The earth covered set is reminiscent and on par with the design from the 1997 Broadway production of Electra. With maintaining the earth (which goes all over the place) and the many props, special mention must go to Danielle Pietrowski who is listed as handling properties and Production Stage Manager Danielle Constance. Additionally, Lauren Rockman’s costumes are evocative of the time period and serve the piece very well. Despite the productions many strengths, there was one aspect to which I kept returning, the content, as if it is to tour schools (which it will), there are places in the piece in which it is very adult and others places in which it is juvenile.
FOR YOUR INFORMATION:
Across the Wide and Lonesome Prairie
November 4-November 21, 2010
Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey
33 Green Village Road
For Tickets, dial: 973.514.1787 or visit www.ptnj.org
By Julie Jensen
Directed by John Pietrowski
Cast: Jane Keitel, Lori Lawrence
Set and Lighting Design: Drew Francis
Costume Designer: Lauren Rockman
Sound Designer: Jeff Knapp