Jaclyn Backhaus’ Men on Boats is quickly finding its place on every female-identifying theater artist’s list of dream plays.
This might be surprising when one learns the play chronicles the (mostly) true story of the all-male John Wesley Powell Geographic Expedition of 1869. The Valley Players have a production running at the Yountville Community Center through Oct. 29.
Why is this play garnering so much attention? Because Backhaus has written all 10 homogenous historical figures to be played by women of varied colors, shapes, sizes and ages.
President Ulysses S. Grant sends 10 white men on four boats to map and explore the Green and Colorado rivers. Along the way, they “discover” and name many landmarks before becoming the first white men to (officially) run the Colorado through the entire Grand Canyon. Of course, as John Powell (Lauren Kelley) himself comments to William Dunn (June Alane Reif), they were not the first to see, name or ride that river.
This script is exciting because it allows women to play characters that are interesting for their bravery without first facing sexual violence. That fact alone makes this play a powerful political statement that should embarrass our industry, but this script is so much more than that. Backhaus has done the seemingly impossible and given us a play that questions the American Mythos regarding representation, perspective, historical empathy and societal norms without descending into the trite or derivative.
Oh, and the script is funny.
That said, perhaps the Valley Players were not ready to stage this technically-complex show. The production has serious pacing issues stemming from director Richard Pallaziol’s confusing decision to allow slow, awkward scene shifts.
The cast does its best in longer scenes, such as when Powell, Sumner (a solid performance by Sonya Keller) and Goodman (a funny Jessica Romero) are met by the menacing duo of Johnson (Ginna Beharry) and Just Jim (a creepy Esmé Nicolson-Singh). It is one of the few scenes in which the cast is allowed to build true tension and establish real stakes. Debbie Gargalikis Baumann (Andrew Hall) and Nancy Heine (William Hawkins) are also steady performers who provided much-needed grounding to their scenes.
Hopefully, tech issues will be addressed, scene shifts will shorten and cues will quicken. When the play reverts back to actors doing the job of telling a really good story, this show will shine. I have my fingers crossed that this will be the case. Female artists everywhere are counting on it.
Valley Players presents ‘Men in Boats’ through Oct. 29 at the Yountville Community Center. 6516 Washington St. Fri–Sat, 7pm; Sun, 2pm. $25–$28. 707.948.6273. valley-players.com.