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It’s all about the journey in Fresh Ink Theatre’s world premiere production of Kira Rockwell’s play “Nomad Americana,” or at least one particular stopover along the way. A destination would be nice, though, and while the show offers some lovely moments, it never quite arrives.
Bridgette (Ivy Ryan) is the central focus. She’s the eldest daughter of the Echo family, an itinerant troupe of performers wandering the nation in an RV. As the play commences — on Bridgette’s 21st birthday, no less -- the Echoes have just arrived in Texas, and they plan to stay just long enough for Bridgette’s pregnant mother, Violet (Janelle Mills) to give birth. When a romance starts to blossom between Bridgette and a local man named Danny (Nick Perron), Bridgette has to start thinking about when and how to start her own life, but she’s inhibited by fears that if she strikes out on her own she’ll re-traumatize her parents and younger sister. As it happens, the Echo family’s peripatetic life is the result of a major loss, and a chain of repercussions that ended up costing them everything but each other.
This is the drama’s core, and it’s solid, salt of the earth stuff. With well-judged pacing, Rockwell reveals compelling tidbits about her characters; we learn that Violet was once a fight choreographer for a Shakespearean theater company, and her husband, Toby (Jeffrey Song), was a performer with the same outfit. (Hence the family’s love of Shakespeare's canon.)
The Echoes are a blended family — Bridgette’s biological father has long been out of the picture, and younger sister Stormi (Khloe Alice Lin) is the daughter of Toby and Violet. The imminent arrival of the new baby has a feeling of promise about it — this will mark a completion, and Violet has chosen this particular town because, being psychic (and a pescatarian to boot), she’s sensitive to the energy of people and places. Danny’s less than ideal family history also comes into play, revealed as he and Bridgette look up at the night sky with one of Bridgette’s hand-drawn star maps as a reference. (This habit of land-locked navigation earns Bridgette the nickname “Sailor” from the smitten Danny.)
The play’s familiar (and familial) themes and readily accessible symbolism create a stable backdrop for a story about restlessness and searching, and the characters have plenty of room to stretch out and display their quirks. Stormi has a fascination with snakes that’s equal parts terror and attraction, while Toby is a merry, slightly mischievous presence who is constantly working on material for new comic routines. (His creation of a sock puppet character called Cottonmouth resonates with Stormi’s herpetological obsessions.) Violet is forever cheerful and affectionate, and her idea of mother-daughter bonding is to conscript a reluctant Bridgette to serve as midwife when the time comes. (Training? Who needs training? Violet has laid in a store of educational materials — a book and a CD.)
Even Danny is something of an outlier — in a happy coincidence, he too is a Shakespeare fanatic, and there’s some wonderful material to be mined from the way he’s met his match in the Echoes. (“The balcony scene?” a disappointed Bridgette responds when Danny ends their first date with a quote from “Romeo and Juliet” that she deems pedestrian, “Really?”)
For all that the play drives toward its resolutions — and it drives hard enough that you feel the vibrations, as though speeding along in the family’s RV -- those resolutions, when they come, mostly feel either incomplete or unearned. Too much is only vaguely insinuated: Why won’t the family speak openly about the loss that triggered their wandering lifestyle? What are they hoping will happen if and when they find what they are looking for? How is it that suddenly the pain that drives them seems to have abated? Can we be let in on how that happened and what it means for their future plans?
We’re shown an elaborate rite in which a family member sacrifices treasured belongings, and we intuit the totemic value of the items, but who or what is being appeased, and how does it propel the larger story?
The cast are largely successful in their work with the material. Ivy Ryan and Nick Perron create a believable portrait of two young people figuring out whether they might be in love. Khloe Alice Lin is a standout, playing Stormi’s oddness with a hilariously deadpan and literal style; Stormi has no idea she’s so strange and so funny. Janelle Mills and Jeffrey Song initially seem to be playing one-note characters, but then the script gives them some intriguing ambiguities to work with -- and where it doesn’t, they find their own. Director Damon Krometis oversees a nicely minimalistic approach that sketches just enough -- an awning, festive Chinese lanterns, lawn chairs -- to let our imaginations fill in the rest.
Fresh Ink’s mission is “to develop new work.” They’re on the right track with this play, though it still feels like a rough draft.
“Nomad Americana” continues at the Boston Playwrights’ Theatre through Feb. 17.
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