“The Way the Mountain Moved” concerns the richly textured, complicated stories of westward expansion in the 1850s, when manifest destiny drove settlers across the continental divide to master new territories and harvest a wealth of natural resources. The intercontinental rail system would join east to west, intended to unite a country divided by more than geography.
“The Way the Mountain Moved,” written by Idris Goodwin and directed by May Adrales, opened last week in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Thomas Theatre.
In it, Goodwin suggests a more diverse American West than our romantic notions of the past, using story to describe fundamental cultural conflicts between expansionists and native people. Expansionists believed in their right to own and occupy a region already inhabited by native people who shared a relationship with the land and an understanding of sacred places.
The opening scenes present the essential differences between two cultures. Michael Gabriel Goodfriend as Lt. Gerald D. Smith leads an expedition to chronicle the land so the railroad can be constructed. He chides a native man, Tuwuda (Christopher Salazar), for hunting a rabbit and speaks of prime rib and rich rations while Tuwuda describes the plants and animals of the Utah desert that he prefers as sustenance.
Smith and his expedition organize and describe, establish and control. Tuwuda and his people are natural beings and find value and sanctity in the landscape. This dichotomy between man and nature is played out time and again in the play.
Duty, religion, morality, family and science are some of the narratives in the play. The threads that weave the stories together are of many native tribes, some agrarian and others nomadic or traders; of scientists and engineers who mapped the land; of military forces made up of Mexican and Spanish soldiers; of settlers who sought wealth, and slaves who sought freedom. Some are thieves and murderers who preyed on the weak.
The female roles in “Mountain” portray women as strong and capable, practical and realistic, each distinctive.
Sara Bruner and Maddy Flemming are cast as Phyllis and her daughter, Helen, who are stranded on the trail, their wagon broken, their family murdered. Flemming as Helen especially seems older than her years, adaptable and unafraid. They are the new western women, indomitable but with a saving grace.
Christiana Clark and Rodney Gardiner are Martha and Orson, African-American slaves seeking freedom, someplace where they can live without tyranny, believers who pray from the Book of Mormon. It is curious and a measure of Clark’s talent that as Martha, she can be vulnerable and afraid when so many of her OSF roles stand her tall and commanding. Clark’s fierce nature emerges when as Martha she protects her husband. It is Gardiner’s gift as Orson to seek peace.
Two expansionist characters are particularly notable: Rex Young as George Harris, a botanist with the military party, and Al Espinosa as Luis Nunez Arista, a Spanish-American soldier hired to protect the expedition. Young beautifully exhibits a botanist’s wonder and excitement at novelty, the newness of discovery and the careful reasoning of a scientist. The botanist knows that brute force will destroy and is an unacceptable consequence of progress.
Espinosa is superb as he carries the anger of a man accountable only to himself, a hothead who acts without thought or reason, even to murder. Arista has lost his way and by his hands the expedition also has lost any beauty it might have found in progress.
“The Way the Mountain Moved” is the latest commissioned work in the American Revolutions series. The series focuses on moments of change, when an axis shifts so radically and so swiftly that it breaks time and space, inviting chaos and disruption to reorder the world.
The play challenges us to open our minds to new ways of thinking about America’s westward expansion in the 1850s as well as this century’s globalization and cultural homogeneity. The play dares us to consider the true meaning and impact of what we might call progress.
The play continues in the Thomas Theatre through Oct. 28. See www.osfashland.org or call the box office at 800-219-8161.
Reach Ashland freelance writer Maureen Flanagan Battistella at email@example.com.