L.A. TIMES, Tuesday, June 26, 1984
A HARD RAIN OF TRUTH FALLS ON 'HOMESTEADERS'
By SYLVIE DRAKE, Times Staff Writer
If you listen to what playwright Nina Shengold has
to say, you learn something. That's as much as one has a right to
expect from a theatrical experience. When that experience is both old
and fresh at once, the suspicion is that there's a real writer in the
Certainly that's the feeling one gets from sitting
through Shengold's "Homesteaders" at the Matrix, where it opened an
Olympic Arts Festival engagement Sunday.
Shengold is not only a writer, but also an honest
woman. She reports life as it is—no matter how disheveled, painful or
Her homesteaders are not the huddled masses in
search of a new life, but poor little rich kids from New Canaan who
chose to burn draft cards and credit cards and flee to America's
Indeed, brothers Neal and Jack Raftery (Stephen
Macht and James N. Stephens, respectively) have survived 11 years in
the inlets of southeastern Alaska. As small "independent" fishermen,
running their own boats, living in their own homes, they have talked
themselves into believing the dream.
Jack lives with his "fiancee," Edra (Veronica
Cartwright), a hard-working native Alaskan nervously watching her
child-bearing years go by. Edra's a realist who's not afraid to spell
out the flip side of the dream. She reads it out clearly for "Jake"
(Anne Kerry), another member of the disaffected rich, whom Neal has
"hired" out of-Seattle as his new "deckhand."
"Independent fishing," we soon find out, means
subsistence at the mercy of weather, long hours, the stink of fish and
seasickness. "Self-contained home" is a clapboard shack (Neal's) which
generates its own electricity—now and then, if and when the generator
kicks in—or an equally primitive houseboat (Jack's) moored nearby.
Nearest store: 50 miles. Phones: none (CB radios do
the trick). Neighbors: none. Ditto street lights—and, for that matter,
streets—while the surrounding nature's majesty says nothing of the
long, dark, idle winters.
When Neal's 14-year-old daughter Laurel (Viveka
Davis) bursts onto the scene (as only furious 14-year-olds can), her
effrontery becomes a catalyst—the knife that skewers the truth out of
Some cutting edge.
Shengold clearly knows plenty about angry
14-year-olds. But she also has listened to intelligent adults defend
themselves—parry, thrust, talk back, reason, reveal.
She keeps us uncovering layers in all these people—
those with and those without layers to hide. And when Life (or, more
precisely, Death) decides to run interference with the brothers'
master plan, Shengold's ear and eye report with scouring accuracy not
only on the turbulence created, but also on the serious moral and
philosophical issues thus disinterred.
Chief among her talents is fearless dialogue, as
blunt and merciless as ever flowed from a woman's pen. It takes a
scathing look at motivations. If Shengold's voice is remarkable for
anything, it is remarkable for its eviscerating honesty.
Gerry Hariton and Vicki Baral's lighting and
interior setting, with their suggestions of splintered age and dirt
and a black, surrounding void, set off the realism of the piece with
just enough abstraction to remind us we're in a theater. And Carol
Brolaski's costumes are appropriately unnoticeable (except for Edra's
humorous fling at re-entering civilization).
The acting is balanced throughout, although a touch
more definition from Kerry as Jake—the least defined character—would
not be amiss. Especially vivid are Davis' fuming Laurel and Stephens'
playful, timid Jack.
Sam Weisman has directed the play with force and a
cool hand, correctly letting the writer's words do the work.
Ultimately it is that writer and those words that are the stars of the
show. Shengold at 28 is very much someone to watch.
LOS ANGELES HERALD-EXAMINER, June 26, 1984
"HOMESTEADERS" STRIKES GOLD
Playwright Nina Shengold is a name to remember
By JAY REINER
Edra: "Want some coffee?"
Jake: "Oh, I'd kill for some coffee."
Edra (pointedly): "It's on the stove."
This snatch of seemingly innocuous dialogue occurs
shortly after "Homesteaders" begins and introduces us to a striking
new playwright and play. If "Homesteaders" is any example, we're going
to be seeing quite a bit of Nina Shengold's work in years to come.
Jake, whose real name is Jacqueline Robbins, is a
24-year-old refugee from New York who's recently arrived at a small
fishing village in Alaska. She's been brought here by Neal, a local
fisherman who's taken her on as a deckhand and lover. When Edra tells
Jake the coffee is on the stove, what she's really saying is: "Get it
yourself, New Yorker. You're in Alaska now, and it's no picnic."
"Homesteaders" is one of those plays in which
things aren't at all what they seem to be (although, paradoxically,
once we get the drift of things, it is fairly predictable, the play's
one flaw). Plays of this kind aren't unusual, but Shengold displays a
rare talent for integrating her plot, themes and characters so
harmoniously that for once the reversals that take place appear to be
anything but tricks. And she also writes with humor, true seasoned
character humor, not the sort of brittle one-liners spawned by
generations of TV sitcoms.
The most important reversal in the play concerns
Neal, who has presented himself to Jake as a born frontiersman, son of
a logger, and an authentic Alaskan lone wolf. But Neal turns out to
have an even preppier background than Jake, not to mention a
14-year-old daughter with the disposition of a rattlesnake. The
conflicts and themes growing out of this situation are many and run
about as deep as you care to follow. One trail takes us to the America
of the 1960s: Neal and his brother Jack (who lives in back with Edra)
were Vietnam draft-dodgers who imbibed too much Jack Kerouac and hit
the road for Alaska. They changed their names (taking their cue from
Kerouac), changed their identities and have tried to change their
values. Shengold explores this theme of burned bridges and burned
draft cards without taking sides or turning it into parlor debate like
several recent plays and films.
Another trail leads skillfully into the vast
expanse of Alaskan wilderness that surrounds these five characters:
the lure of hunting, fishing, trapping — giving up all the civilized
amenities in exchange for near-absolute freedom and the raw beauty of
the land. Neal, for all the furies that drive him, is truly in love
with his life, while the two women and Jack (to a certain extent) feel
the tug of indoor plumbing.
Shengold and director Sam Weisman, with the help of
a superlative cast, have put this story together beautifully. Stephen
Macht's Neal is an unforgettable character, a man of iron with a
seething mass of contradictions boiling dangerously beneath the
surface. Veronica Cartwright's overworked Edra, who's had her fill of
Alaska and is just dying to get into a miniskirt, is another
performance gem. James N. Stephens brings an enormous amount of
vitality to Jack, and Anne Kerry copes fairly well with Jake, the
play's least-developed character.
Gerry Hariton and Vicki Baral's cabin set and
lighting are among this teams best and Carol Brolaski's costumes are
patchwork perfect. The production is a model of the kind of thrilling
work that can be done on the Equity-waiver level. As for Shengold —
what an extraordinary debut.
READER, June 29, 1984
HOMESTEADERS STAKES OUT SERIOUS NEW
By BRUCE BEBB
How do Americans see themselves
these days? That's one of the questions foreign visitors to the
Olympic Arts Festival must be asking themselves. Of course there's an
overwhelming volume of various types of evidence, since our
narcissistic culture has made self-examination a major industry. Yet
the discerning visitor will slough off the countless popular self-help
fads, the embarrassingly crass television programs and the movies
aimed at children and adolescents, and take a hard look at the best
our serious artists have to say. One example of such work worth
thinking about is Homesteaders, a play by Nina Shengold
currently being presented at the Matrix Theatre on Melrose Avenue.
deserves consideration not because it's an Olympic Arts
Festival offering, of course—much of the stuff in the festival is
simply light entertainment, which is as it should be-but because
Shengold takes up questions that have been troubling many of us for
years: It's a play about how to live, how to come to terms with the
past—including your parents—and the future—your children. Shengold has
constructed a well-made drama about middle-class values told in a
naturalistic style. As it unfolds before you it is, in a dramatic
sense, completely convincing; its better touches are like something by
Arthur Miller. In many ways this production is as good as any Los
Angeles theater has presented lately, and you leave the play with
something to chew on. Whether you choose to swallow the message and
digest it is another matter.
Specific details are important here.
Homesteaders is set in a wooden cabin in southeastern Alaska.
Five Americans spend two months together here at the edge of the last
frontier. It is the summer .of 1979. The family that lives here is
part of an island fishing community. The play begins in the dark: You
hear good-natured joshing on a CB radio. Someone is calling home,
bringing a new deckhand to work on his fishing boat with him. One of
the voices uses a few four-letter words in a familiar, harmless way,
and another threatens to "turn you hippies in to the FCC." It's the
sort of rough banter that passes constantly between people who know
each other well. A mature woman's voice extends an invitation to bring
the newcomer over to get acquainted as soon as possible.
The lights come up to reveal Edra
(Veronica Cartwright), a blond-haired woman of thirty-three. She's
dressed in jeans and a heavy shirt, and she's peering anxiously out a
window, listening to the CB and watching for the others' arrival. When
Neal Raftery (Stephen Macht) and the new deckhand "Jake" come in, we
see that "Jake" is the nickname of a pretty brunette named Jacqueline
(Anne Kerry). Jacqueline is struck with admiration for the interior of
the cabin, so our eyes follow hers around the room.
The set is remarkable: raw wood, a
wood cookstove, a plank table, shelves of groceries, a bed on a
platform built at chest level, an old refrigerator with postcards
taped on its door. Gerry Hariton and Vicki Baral have designed a room
that seems starkly real and at the same time romantically inviting. On
some pretext Neal steps out for a minute, and the two women start to
get to know each other while Edra stows the fresh supplies Neal bought
in town. Jacqueline is friendly and tries to be helpful, but Edra
spurns her at first, obviously resentful at her intrusion. So far we
can't tell what Homesteaders is about, but the people seem real
and sympathetic, and when the others show up the play becomes even
The others are Jack Raftery (James
N. Stephens), Neal's bespectacled younger brother, and Laurel Sierra
Millis (Viveka Davis), Neal's fourteen-year-old daughter. As played
under Sam Weisman's direction, Jack and his niece are the most vital
members of the quintet. Like Neal, Jack is a fisherman who works
ordinarily by himself. His was the voice of foul-mouthed raillery we
heard on the CB. His is the only one with a sense of humor and his wit
is not a matter of jokes but rather a light, tolerant, flexible
approach to his surroundings. Stephen's portrayal is a subtle,
affectionate one of a man who has chosen a life of action but not
brutality; he brings out the ridiculousness in an anecdote about a
barroom brawl that resulted when someone else quoted Milton at a
couple of tough loggers. Jack is Edra's "fiancee'"; she tells
Jacqueline they have been engaged four years; they live in a nearby
cabin on a raft.
Laurel is a stereotype, the angry
teenager on the verge of sexual exploration, yet in Davis's
interpretation she comes to life—her frustration and rage at her
divorced parents (her mother is an acupressure therapist in Sausalito)
seems genuine and, from her point of view, thoroughly justified. She
is here to visit for the summer, yet since her father spends most of
his time fishing, and she hates fish, she's bored and restless and
bound to get in trouble.
It isn't only his daughter that Neal
doesn't have time for. He's a brooding, macho type with a
take-it-or-leave-it attitude toward everything. He neglected to tell
Jacqueline that he had a teenage daughter at home when he hired her.
He dazzled her with a story about coming from a tiny village in
Canada, the son of an alcoholic logger who lost a leg in a sawmill
accident. Jacqueline is a typist from New York, fresh from visiting
her father in Seattle, where he lives with—she curls her lip with
contempt—his third wife. At the beginning she sees herself in
the midst of an adventure, and Jack and Neal are like two frontiersmen
in the Old West.
Already we've seen plenty of
material to base a domestic drama on: The delicate balance of a family
is upset by the addition of a newcomer, and the action proceeds until
the outsider is definitely included in (or excluded from) the group.
But that isn't the story Nina
Shengold wants to tell. In the second scene Homesteaders takes
an unexpected turn, and the playwright raises the stakes. Neal and
Jack have been living an eleven-year imposture that borders on
fantasy. They're brothers, but their name isn't Raftery, it's Lowry;
they adopted their new first names from Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady.
They live on the edge of civilization, not outside it; their trips to
town for supplies are infrequent yet essential; they want to pretend
that the past doesn't exist or matter, but they can't get away with
It's a real American topic—a lot of
us still daydream about escaping to Alaska or Australia or someplace,
and from time to time some of us try it. Shengold has worked in
southeastern Alaska herself, and much of Homesteaders rings
true. I don't want to give the rest of the plot away—more surprises
come in the second act; one of the play's major themes is secrecy and
its harmful effects. I think Shengold got stuck and decided to
introduce a modern-day deus ex machina to help keep the action
going. Yet in spite of what strikes me as an unfortunate flaw,
Homesteaders is worth your time. If a visitor from Norway or
Bolivia called me as a witness and put it to me: Does the play tell
the truth? I would be obliged to admit, well, it's not the whole
truth, it's not nothing but the truth—but it tells part of the truth
about some of us.
ARTICLE: "From Wesleyan to L.A., Via the Alaskan
L.A. Times, Friday, June 22, 1984
by CRAIG FISHER
When her play "Homesteaders" opens at the Matrix
Theater Sunday, Nina Shengold won't be surprised if some members of
the audience assume she's a man.
At the play's previous productions, Shengold says
she observed theatergoers "looking in their programs at intermissions
and saying, 'Oh, my God. This is by a girl,' " The play'rf strong
masculine characters and themes, she says, have led many to believe
that it must have been written by a man.
That's fine with her: She says she's always "rather
enjoyed" people's perplexity about her.
Earlier this month, Shengold, 28, sat upstairs at
the Matrix and recalled how growing up in Bayonne, N.J., she was "a pretty ambitious kid" who was
directing plays by the time she was a senior in high school. She
completed Wesleyan University in three years with a degree in
directing, in 1974. and went to New York to become a director.
After four years of backstage work (lighting,
carpentry and the like), however, she was still no closer to her goal.
So, in the autumn of 1978, she headed west, and, for six months in
1979, lived and worked in the southeast Alaskan panhandle as, among
other things, a deckhand on a salmon trawler.
"When you're steering a boat for anywhere from six
to 12 hours all day—and all you're basically doing is looking out for
floating debris and keeping your eye on the depth sound—it's very
meditative. I got a tremendous amount of writing done just in terms of having that much time to think,"
Upon returning to New York, Shengold says she
developed "Homesteaders" out of her reflections about people, like
herself, who had sought an alternate, and often ragged, life
style in Alaska, which she describes as "the opposite of the American
dream... downward mobility."
"I was wondering why people in the 1980s would want
to try to find themselves by living a very primitive life style,
basically living off the land. To me, it was tied into the '60s
dream," Shengold says.
"Alaska seems like a place outside of time. It's a
place where people can get stuck in their own past."
"Homesteaders," which opened at the Capital
Repertory Company in Albany, N.Y., in 1983 and was performed at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven,
Conn., in February, is being given its West Coast premiere here.
It concerns five people (two men and three women)
who are part of what Shengold calls the
"subsistence-fishermen-hippie-dropout population" of southeastern
Alaska. Although the play is set in 1979, Shengold says it's "as if
'79 had stopped about 10 years earlier."
But, Shengold notes, Alaska is not truly an escape
hatch: "You can't make your solutions geographically. However much you
want to take yourself out of your old way of life, you're the same
person. Ultimately to start over you have to come to terms with what
"That's universal. I don't think that just happens