“The Way West;” and “The Amen Corner” – April 29, 2015

Music has a way of reaching out like no other art form. In times of stress it calms our nerves. It gives us strength when we are struggling. Then again, it also has a way of reaching into our souls and tearing us into sad little pieces.

Two new Marin County shows, neither a traditional musical, each use music in unexpected ways to tell stories about tough, resilient people battling impossible odds.

One is just so-so. The other is a must see.

“The Way West,” now playing at Marin Theatre Company, is Mona Mansour’s intriguing but mostly unsatisfying examination of how self-delusion and optimism can make us feel like the heroes of our own stories, even when we’re not. Mom, played with forceful enthusiasm by Anne Darragh, just won’t let anything get her down. Her Central California home is being foreclosed upon. She has a mysterious illness. She keeps driving her car into things. But as long as she can pick up a ukulele and sing songs about the early pioneers – those plucky survivors who made it through on sheer grit and optimism – then she’ll get by.

Her daughters aren’t so sure.

Manda, a high-earning grant writer, is appalled at her mother’s ambivalence in the face of looming disaster, and Meesh is just looking for the next E-bay scam to earn a few dollars of her own. Mom’s friend Tress has taken what little is left of her friend’s money to invest in a cutting-edge weight loss business, something to do with magic water selling for 500 bucks a bottle.

From this rather promising theatrical set-up, directed with a wobbly sense of pace by Hayley Finn, a rather rocky and rambling story unfolds, one that frustrates as much as it entertains. The songs are a nice diversion, and the performances are likable across the board. But like the less fortunate pioneers Mom loves to sing and talk about, the ones abandoned along the way or eaten by the others, this amiable failure of a play just doesn’t have what it takes to make it through to the end.

That brings us to James Baldwin’s marvelous “The Amen Corner” presented by AlterTheater of Marin.

In “The Amen Corner,” Gospel music underscores the roiling emotions lurking under the surface of a small storefront church in Harlem, 1953. Directed with fierce attention to emotional detail by Jeanette Harrison, this production unfolds, with minimal props and set pieces, in a cramped corner the Body Kinetics health club in San Rafael, a setting that lends an appropriate sense of urban place to the story.

Sister Margaret, played sensationally by Cathleen Riddley, is the impassioned shepherd of a small flock of believers. She leads by example as much as by the fire of her sermons. When her long-estranged jazz musician husband Luke suddenly appears, Margaret fears he might pull their son David from God’s path.

She never suspects that its her congregation, gradually incited by what they’ve learned about their leader’s past, who she should be wary of. Insightful and lyrical, with beautiful writing and strong supporting performances anchoring the rising drama, “The Amen Corner” is sensitively insightful and powerfully moving.

It’s long, with two intermissions, but like a good old-fashioned gospel tune, it’s worth the time, and impossible to get out of your head.

“The Way West” runs Tuesday–Sunday through May 10 at Marin Theatre Company.

“The Amen Corner” runs Tuesday–Sunday through May 17 at Body Kinetics, and Saturdays at the Smith Rafael Film Center.

I’m David Templeton, Second Row Center, for KRCB.

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