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Manifest/Destiny
by Vladimir Zelevinsky
Directed by Steve Callahan
West End Players Guild
November 5, 2016

Jeremy Goldmeier, Emily Johnson, Zach Venturella, Airel Roukaerts Photo by John Lamb West End Players Guild

Jeremy Goldmeier, Emily Johnson, Zach Venturella, Airel Roukaerts
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

West End Players Guild’s newest production is a look at immigration and migration and how generations of settlers have shaped the identity of a nation. It’s also a look at the concept of immigration itself, exploring the reasons why people move from place to place. This St. Louis production of Russian-American playwright Vladimir Zelevinsky’s Manifest/Destiny is constructed in an intriguing way and features some strong performances and memorable moments.

There isn’t one story in this play. There are many. The four player (Jeremy Goldmeier, Emily Johnson, Ariel Roukaerts, and Zach Venturella) all play a variety of characters existing over a span of decades and centuries, representing the many immigrants and settlers, mostly from various parts of Europe, who have come to the United States with hopes of making a home here. The first act focuses on getting here, with the various characters describing their journeys and also their reasons for coming to America, including personal aspirations, religious reasons, and fleeing from oppressive governments. Some of the stories are dramatic and others are humorous, alternating with depicting the experience of travel itself, including water leaks, disease, and dealing with immigration officials at Ellis Island upon arrival. In Act 2, the focus shifts to settlement and migration within the country, as the immigrants traveled an ocean to get to America now find themselves for various reasons wanting to move further and further West. Grueling wagon journeys, disputes with fellow travelers, personal prejudices and legal disputes are depicted as the settlers try to find their place out West. Westward migration isn’t the end, though, as the play suggests the desire to keep moving, keep exploring, is still apparent even toward the “end’ of the story.

This is all very episodic, with some profound and memorable moments such as stories of Jewish immigrants fleeing Nazi Germany, and Irish settlers dealing with the harsh realities not only of migration, but of mistreatment and prejudice by their neighbors. There are some clever elements involving the representative nature of the story, as various characters from different time periods interact and inform one another of their own experiences. There’s a funny moment, for instance, when a man from one time period (Venturella) proposes to a woman (Roukaerts) from a different time, and she points out that it will never work out.  Little moments like this exist amidst the other stories of hopes, dreams, conflict and the ever-present desire to find a home. All four performers do an excellent job of portraying different people from different time periods, with Goldmeier getting some of the more memorable monologues, and Johnson getting to lead the cast in a striking rendition of “Amazing Grace.”

The staging, as is usual for most West End productions, utilizes the main stage area and the floor in front of the stage. Director Steve Callahan designed a set that works well with the transient nature of the story, with movable set pieces that can be adjusted to suggest a ship at sail, or a great Western plain, and more. Tracey Newcomb’s costumes outfit the performers well, allowing for the flexibility of playing different characters in different times. There’s also strong lighting work from Rebecca Winslow and sound from Mary Beth Winslow. Overall, the production has much in-motion feel that works very well for the theme of this show.

Manifest/Destiny is a well-told story. It’s not anything especially innovative or groundbreaking, but these stories are important to remember and playwright Zelevinsky has portrayed them with poignancy. The cast members do an excellent job of living the story instead of simply telling it, as well. It’s a history lesson, but it doesn’t forget that it’s humans who make history.

West End Players Guild is presenting Manifest/Destiny at Union Avenue Christian Church until November 13, 2016.

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