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Frontier Justice In 'Flyin' West' At Westport Playhouse

It has been a good few weeks for melodrama.The Gothic rush of “Love Never Dies” swept through the Bushnell. The murder satire “Chicago” toddled into the Shubert. “The Invisible Hand” — a contemporary political drama that is also very much a snappy suspense thriller — holds forth at TheaterWorks. And now the 19th century settlers of “Flyin’ West” have pulled into the Westport Country Playhouse, opening that theater’s spring-to-winter 2018 season.

(Three of these four shows also featured supremely stylish bowler hats, but I digress.)

“Flyin’ West” is set in the 1890s and behaves like the gaslight dramas of that time.

The renowned feminist playwright, novelist and essayist Pearl Cleage has folded serious universal issues of racism, classism, civil rights, gender politics and basic human survival into an entertaining old-fashioned melodrama format. There are loud arguments, fraught encounters, dastardly threats and exhilarating acts of heroism. There are also savage beatings, highly disturbing verbal outbursts and frank discussions of slavery and domestic abuse.

Cleage wrote “Flyin’ West” in 1994, which was seen that same year at the Long Wharf Theatre, directed by Kenny Leon. The director of this new Westport production is Seret Scott, who was at the Long Wharf in the ’90s as well, directing “The Amen Corner” and “The Joy Luck Club.” Scott also directed “A Raisin in the Sun” at Hartford Stage in 2006 and the splendid new stage adaptation of “Native Son” at Yale Repertory Theatre this past fall.

Scott is an expert at interpreting 20th century African-American dramas. She doesn’t have one particular approach. For “Native Son,” she found a singular abstract lyrical style to the dreamy mystery tale. For “Flyin’ West,” Scott plays up the fight scenes, and the comic ones, for maximum theatrical impact.

All the action is set around a homestead in Nicodemus, Kan., a town founded by African-American settlers during the post-Civil War era of Reconstruction. The residents of this household are all women — Fannie Doyle, who’s writing a book; her mother Miss Leah, who exudes stoic calm; and their no-nonsense, easily flustered friend Sophie, who has become a close companion and housemate. They have been befriended by a goodhearted local man, Wil Parish.

All are seen working incessantly; cooking, cleaning and bringing in firewood while they are also occupied with building up their town with a school and other public buildings. Their urban planning, and their independence, may be undermined by a group of white speculators who are looking to buy much of the town’s land.

The script is full of pithy sayings that suggest the sorts of struggles these resilient settlers endure. “People are scared of different things,” Fannie posits.

“No they’re not,” Sophie responds. “They’re either scared or they’re not.”

The women are visited by Leah’s other daughter Minnie and her overbearing, easily outraged, vain, smug, indisputably despicable husband Frank Charles. Frank is a cultured poet who wants to live in Europe and pass as a white man; when he is in public with Minnie he acts as if he doesn’t know her. He is appalled at the very idea of frontier living. When his fortunes suddenly change, he immediately begins scheming to sell his wife’s family’s land to the speculators.

Scott and her six-person cast don’t play this material ironically, or comically over-the-top, or in a superior or detached manner. They wring it for laughs, suspense and righteous anger.

Michael Chenevert might as well have a curly black mustache and a black cape as the villainous Frank Charles. Brittany Bradford and Keona Welch, as the sisters Fannie and Minnie, alternate idealism and indignation with innocence and vulnerability. Nikita Mathis as Sophie is the most volatile, grabbing for her rifle each time she leaves the house. Edward O’Blenis gives goodhearted Wil an aw-shucks Jimmy Stewart demeanor.

It’s particularly fun to watch Brenda Pressley, who played one of the centenarian Delany sisters in “Having Our Say” at both Hartford Stage and the Long Wharf Theatre in 2016, in another role in which she’s required to prepare a pie onstage while calmly spouting down-home homilies.

The Westport audience ate all this up, as did the Long Wharf audience nearly a quarter century ago. “Flyin’ West” foments big crowd reactions: gasps, whoops and cheers. You naturally root for these put-upon women and rejoice when they show their resolve — though their revenge plots and egregious form of frontier justice may cause qualms once you consider them more fully outside of the theater.

FLYIN’ WEST by Pearl Cleage, directed by Seret Scott, is at Westport Country Playhouse through June 16. Performances are Tuesday at 7 p.m.; Wednesday at 2 and 8 p.m.; Thursday and Friday at 8 p.m.; Saturday at 3 and 8 p.m.; and Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets are $30 to $70. 203-227-4177 and westportplayhouse.org.

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