The Great Divide
nytheatre.com review by Matt Roberson
March 7, 2011
If you haven’t heard of William Vaughn Moody’s The Great Divide, once hailed as “the long awaited great American play,” don’t feel bad. We Americans have never been known for our love of the past. What you must know, however, is that right now, Metropolitan Playhouse, those saviors of our country’s rich dramatic history, are putting on a very worthy production of this strong, poetic drama.
The most powerful moments of The Great Divide take place on the open expanses of the untamed American West. Philip, joined by his sister Ruth, have left their stale, yet comfortable, life back East in the hopes of striking it rich manufacturing cactus fiber. The work is hard, the surrounding culture unfamiliar, but for Ruth, life is beginning once again. With determination, they’ll make their mark, and even if they don’t, she still has the desert sunsets and surrounding ranges to place her faith in. If only Ruth knew that this endless landscape would become her prison. Following a vicious attack, perfectly staged by Michael Hardart and Joseph Travers in this small space, Ruth is forced to choose between brutality and a life with a man she doesn’t know. Taking the latter, she leaves behind the naïve happiness she had carried closely up to this point, opening yet another chapter with the handsome but conflicted Stephen Ghent.
Watching Moody’s drama is a treat for many reasons. Moody, who was also a poet, knew how to compose beautiful dialogue. There is real charm in the play’s language, and very quickly I found myself wrapped up in its glow. Moody also had no trouble writing a comic scene and then, without warning, turning and hitting his audience with ugly, brutal violence. Handling Moody’s shifting tones and words with grounded expertise is Hardart’s cast, each of whom are able to successfully add a unique stamp to the play’s many characters. This type of ensemble work makes for a fun, engaging night of theatre. The leads are successful in showing their characters' inner journeys, with especially engaging performances by Tony Zazella (Philip) and Lauren Sowa (Ruth). Equally strong is the supporting cast. As the high-society wise-cracker Polly, Elizabeth Inghram is clearly a crowd favorite, and as the drunkard Dutch, Joe Gioco, in a very short time, displays a raw ferocity rarely seen on stage. And when they all come out between acts to literally piece together Emily Ingles’s fun, Western set, I began to smile: “This,” I thought “is why I love the theatre.”
If there is a misstep, it is the play’s third act, which is oddly stiff and unclear when compared with the previous two. The ending is also difficult, by modern standards, to accept, especially considering the strong minds Ibsen was giving his women almost thirty years prior. But this is the text Hardart and company have chosen, and instead of judging it or attempting a slick modern spin, they allow the play’s voice to sing loud and beautifully. For those of you who love a well written, well acted drama, you’d do well to give The Great Divide a listen.