A friendly energy runs through the heart of The Road to Where, a tangible and inviting companionship.
The Road to Where by Cass Morgan. Directed by Steve Stettler. Staged by the Weston Playhouse Theatre Company at the Weston Playhouse 12 Park Street, Weston, VT, through August 30.
By Kate Abbott
The stage area feels like a pub — wooden beams, fireplace, wooden tables, a glass of amber liquid on the piano. Across the table, a lithe woman in a blue cotton shirt is telling you about her childhood in a Florida trailer park, her grandmother in Rochester, N.Y., and a few days in the west of Ireland. Near the river Shannon a man in a bookstore in County Clare remembered her great grandmother’s name and sent her looking for her people.
Cass Morgan has turned her life and her family into a one-person show. This form often lends itself to intimacy, and The Road to Where has the feel of the kind of chance conversation with a casual stranger that takes hold of you and goes on into the small hours.
In 1982, Morgan brought Pump Boys and Dinettes to Broadway as one of the original team of six musicians and actors who created a country and rock musical set in small-town North Carolina. She has a wide-ranging career, including recent roles in musicals as the Bird Woman in Mary Poppins, Mama in Memphis and Marge in The Bridges of Madison County. In this new work she performs her own music in a script that she has developed — and this time the story is her own.
In the play, Cass is at a difficult time. She is coming through a divorce and caring for her aging mother. She goes off to Ireland, where her mother’s mother’s mother was born, looking for some kind of comfort or confidence or clarity.
Morgan moves fluently from one character to another, and three musicians —- Eli Zoller on guitar, Pearl Rhein on fiddle and Max Grossman on piano —- accompany her, sometimes stepping into a scene with her as a childhood friend or as her parents when they were young.
The Irish characters brim with warmth. Morgan sees and feels County Clare intensely, every wet sheep and cup of tea. In her eyes the country seems sometimes ideal and sometimes muddily real. Her impressions resonate with a sense of humor and sadness. Barefoot children play in the street. An old woman rows across the Shannon to the island where she lived as a girl. People share stories and music and the poverty that sent Cass’s great grandmother away. Staying in a small room in a small-town inn, Cass says her great-grandmother might not have been able to get a job sweeping the stairs here. She looks out the window at families gathering for church in their best worn clothes — spare change goes in the collection plate.
As she bikes uphill in the rain, looking for her distant family, she follows the stories of her immediate family. We see her father’s long illness and her own rough, barefoot childhood. She wrestles with memories of her parents, their anger and loss. Cass in her middle years sings to her father, a young factory worker going off to World War II, and to her mother, a young movie usher waiting for him to return to their upstate New York mill town. Understanding comes to her in moments that touch near the bone.
Her songs often feel more like New York than like County Clare — a singer/songwriter with a tinge of Broadway and, in the tune about her Florida childhood, a touch of country. Listening to the Irish voices, we are waiting for Irish music.. We get hints here and there. A whistled walking tune becomes the melody for a memory of her father. A line of fiddle melody ripples like an air in a song about her grandmother taking her to Mass. A penny whistle runs like water and fades away.
For most of the show we only get hints. But the Irish music comes in at the end. It comes when Cass begins to feel her feet on the ground. A ballad, almost a march, propels her great-grandmother onto a ship for New York City. And the fiddle and accordion and guitar swing into a reel in the pub, the real, warm, genuine music you want to dance to. It carries the crowd along. The play has built to this moment, and now the room is alight with it. This friendly energy is at the heart of the show, a tangible and inviting companionship.
The actors share this feeling. The young musicians respond to Morgan eagerly, and they turn to each other as they play, trading lines of music and instruments with the casual, warm skill of a jam band, as though they have played at this pub every Friday night for years.
And at the center of the play and the room, Morgan stands with her short-cropped silver hair and her head thrown back, smiling. She moves like a dancer. She beckons like a storyteller. In the end the show rests on her, and that in itself is powerful — a musical drama by a woman in her prime. Morgan plays a dozen characters a dozen feet away from the audience, and in this intimate setting she is most powerfully herself —- inviting and open and mature.
Kate Abbott, a writer based in Western Massachusetts, served as editor of Berkshires Week and then Berkshires Week & Shires of Vermont magazine, a year-round weekly arts and coltural publication in the Berkshire Eagle, Bennington Banner, and Manchester Journal newspapers from 2008 to 2015. She holds an M.F.A. in fiction from the University of New Hampshire and has published poetry in journals including the Comstock Review and Entelechy International. She enjoys talking with people, walking in the woods, playing contradance recorder, and writing about all three.