A West of the Imagination

As in most of Sebastian Barry’s plays, the characters at the center of his 1992 drama, White Woman Street, are a group of outcasts: hard-riding, train-robbing bandits of the Old West. Give Barry marks for focusing on a milieu that virtually no other playwright has written about. Unfortunately, Barry’s conception of 1916 Ohio (heavily industrialized, even before World War I) as akin to the Wild West gets the play off on the wrong foot. Barry acknowledges his geographical misstep in his preface to Plays:1: “Now as any person knows who has their bearings in this world, Ohio is a couple of states east of Iowa, as one of the actors gently pointed out to me.” And even Iowa in that period wasn’t the Old West; just imagine Harold Hill and the traveling salesmen in The Music Man being attacked by train robbers.

But director Charlotte Moore has recognized that White Woman Street is more an impressionistic meditation on values and roots, memory and myth, than a historical document. Her production provides a fascinating look at the young Barry’s strengths while accepting his weaknesses.

The leader of the bandits is Trooper O’Hara (Stephen Payne), a man aching to return to his home town of Sligo in Ireland. En route to the East, Trooper has planned the robbery of a gold train passing through the town of White Woman Street, named for the “only white woman for five hundred miles of wilderness.” Trooper hasn’t been there in 30 years, but he remembers the brothel where she “used to see to business” and a secret that he cannot shake.

Indeed, none of Trooper’s ragtag band—an assembly of natives and immigrants—can escape their pasts. They include the gruff Moses Mason (Gordon Stanley), who left his Amish sect in Ohio as a young man; the simple Nathaniel Yeshov (Evan Zes), of mixed Russian and Chinese parentage but raised in Brooklyn; Blakely, a voluble Brit from Grimsby, England; and Jim (Charlie Hudson, III), a black man from North Carolina. Their hardscrabble backgrounds are evoked by Hugh Landwehr’s set, a combination of vertical slats and scrim fronting black plastic that resembles an abandoned prairie barn about to collapse.

Though the melting pot is a bit schematic, Barry seems to be taking a leaf from Nathaniel’s description of Easter celebrations in Russia. Blakely asks him, “How come you know that, Nathaniel, that never was in Russia?” Nathaniel answers, “I seeing through my Pa’s eyes now for you. See, I shut my own, and seeing through his.” Thus Barry imagines the places and incidents in his plot, sometimes persuasively, sometimes less so. (For instance, how does Trooper know there’s a train passing through White Woman Street, and at what time, when he hasn’t been around in three decades?)

The men ride (on high stools with reins, albeit with real excitement provided by the galloping hooves in Zachary Williamson’s sound design), hunt, and spill their stories in monologues and conversations. Mo remembers when he and Trooper met up with Blakely and the two men had a comical interchange, and Greg Mullavey’s affable Blakely easily accepts the joke on himself. The hard-bitten Trooper claims to have been in the Indian Wars, but he denies having killed any Indians: “Said I was in them since I was…. Didn’t say never that I was shooting Indians.” (Barry’s broken syntax attempts to approximate the grammar of semi-literate men, and he gives each character a different mode of speech, but the syntax never carries the ring of truth that, say, Charles Portis’s vernacular in True Grit does.)

Trooper’s denials don’t wash with Blakely, however, who speaks unaccountably in even choppier English: “He think I believing him! He were a full-pay trooper then—a-course he shot himself Indians.” In the town, which has grown, the men visit a chapel, then a brothel. Trooper reveals his secret to Mo, and the men then set out to rob the train, with fatal results.

Throughout the episodic piece, Barry shows a mastery of lyrical monologues; a gift for rhythm and poetry that vividly charts the penury of the characters’ lives; and a sense of man’s spiritual floundering in the cosmos. Any particular theology is nebulous at best, and Moore’s final tableau, which evokes Michelangelo’s Pietà, doesn’t clarify anything. Still, it’s enough that they have souls. White Woman Street shows the promise of Barry’s works to come, like The Steward of Christendom and The Pride of Parnell Street.

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