There's a delightful perversity in the fact that America was founded by people escaping their past, only to have it dragged up again by their curious descendants. For Susan Ferrara, an Italian-American actress, the desire to understand the question "Where do I come from?" turned into the solo show Peasant, now running as an engaging, evolving workshop piece at Chashama. Ferrara tells the story of three Italian sisters who come to the United States as teenagers during World War I. The eldest, Assunta, narrates most of the story, which is trigged by a question from her young granddaughter Susie for a class project. Assunta details the conditions in the town of San Marco; the travails of her husband, Francesco; and their problems with their too eager to assimilate son, who rejects traditional values for the lure of a fast buck. As Ferrara changes perspectives—portraying Assunta, her sisters, Francesco, Susie, and several other characters—the audience gets a full picture of the way that America changes her and her family through two generations.
The language of the piece is lyrical, full of short sentences and repeated evocative phrases. Perhaps because Ferrara is the writer and performer, she is able to deliver this material effectively, avoiding a singsongy or affected delivery. The piece's structure is a little shaky at the start, without a clear idea of the show's protagonist, but the narrative finds its groove as it's taken over by the strong-willed Assunta.
Overall, there is more shaping to be done here with regard to the order and importance of the stories. Fortunately, Ferrara's acting carries the play. Her transitions between characters are fluid and blissfully unmannered. She has a strong command of accents; although at the start the elderly Assunta skewed somewhat Russian to my ears, Ferrara seemed to modify it and ably handled the many dialects of the other characters. She also changed her center of gravity and posture to capture the tale's players. Once the ensemble had been established, there was never any doubt as to which role she was essaying.
The show is performed in a black-box space, with Ferrara wearing a simple layered dress and clutching a white cloth. Yet the dialogue and characterizations paint the stage with scenery and do not leave the audience feeling visually shortchanged or understimulated. Dale Heinen's direction keeps the show moving along with a sense of importance—not an easy task when the subject is someone's personal history and there is no particular urgency or secret involved in its telling.
At the end of the performance, it is not clear whether these people are presented accurately or if Ferrara has taken poetic license with her relatives' histories. But her creations are so lively and soulful that they seem real. While there is a lot of heartache in Peasant, the act of storytelling is a redeeming one: her past becomes our past, and we are the better for it.