Impact Theater’s ‘The Oregon Trail’ toys with fantasy, reality

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You left because there was nothing left for you. Gathering your oxen and two daughters, you start your journey to the promised land, to a better future, to Oregon.

This is, roughly, the subplot to Impact Theatre’s newest play, “The Oregon Trail,” a story of endurance in the face of hopelessness. Nestled in a somewhat secret and definitely dark basement of La Val’s Subterranean on Northside, the 80-minute production casts five actors in seven roles. You might also remember Impact’s modern rendition of Richard III, which wrapped just last month.

Maria Giere Marquis performs as present-day Jane, a media studies graduate who sleeps, lies and cries on her sister’s couch for most of the time we see her because she can’t cope with the rate of the earth’s rotation (read: the passage of time). Cassie Rosenbrock plays sister Mary Anne, a bossy and sometimes cavalier nurse whose pain about a recent breakup effectively leaves Jane stranded in her own frustrated thoughts.

The story opens on a middle school Jane waiting to be picked up from school. As she waits, she sits down at a desktop computer and loads Oregon Trail, a computer game popularized in the 1990s (play the original for free here or the sequel here). Jane’s middle school world slowly dissolves as the audience is folded full force into the world of cholera- and dysentery-ridden 17th-century America. The game, the first version of which resembles lines of code rather than a “fun,” educational game about American history, takes the player through the journey of the trail that took thousands of settlers from the Midwest to the West Coast.

The small family that Jane creates in the game becomes real, tangible characters of the play, offering endless avenues of parallelism and comparison between the game and Jane’s progressing life. Stern and loving father Clancy, who is played by Jon Nagel, is the agent of this movement and will do anything to forge ahead and leave his troubles behind. The play makes the invisible relationship between family and Jane look natural, and it gracefully moves back and forth between snapshots of trail life and Jane’s unending discomfort.

Jane is directly paralleled to “Then Jane,” a daughter of the Oregon family and a character whom actress Ariella Amaris Irula executes with a quiet yet aching simplicity, her constant yearning supplying the physical manifestation of an underlying torment that weaves itself throughout the fabric of the play. Jane and Then Jane are connected through their desolation and grief, respectively, grappling with despair so intense that it becomes harmonious. In Then Jane’s case, this is expressed literally as she gathers the strength to continue her journey alone.

And we can’t forget Billy (Ben Calabrese), the high school jock whom Jane has an interest in for the better half of the show. Calabrese is pitch perfect, delivering lines with such harsh poignancy that they become mellifluous. Calabrese doubles as the game itself, narrating the progression of time as well as Jane’s inner emotions, exposing her further to the audience — and also allowing Jane to see herself.

The play confronts mental illness and illuminates it as a hereditary trait instead of a spontaneous occurrence. There is much humanity in moments when Jane, plagued by unshakable sadness, becomes frustrated with herself: It is in these scenes that the play’s realism comes in. At one moment, Jane wakes up on her sister’s couch one morning and tells herself to stop being sad. When this doesn’t work, she throws her head in her hands, close to tears. This moment is so universal and so familiar that it’s hard not to relate, even if you have enough time to invest all of it, as well as your effort, into a computer game made for middle schoolers.

Overall, the story offers subtle, casual shocks, the biggest one coming at the end in a moment of impossible paradox. “The Oregon Trail” is a play that comes full circle and manages to distance itself from fantasy by the end. “The Oregon Trail” isn’t about a game at all — it’s about life.

‘The Oregon Trail’ is playing at Impact Theater until June 7.

Contact Elizabeth Moss at [email protected].