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A CurtainUp New Jersey Review
Across The Wide and Lonesome Prairie
Started out as children; six months later we were adults. This here's how it all began. — Hattie

Across the Wide and Lonesome Prairie
(l to r) Jane Keitel as Hattie and Lori Lawrence as Pepper
Slowly and arduously maneuvering an uncovered wagon over gravely dirt, pushing it forward, pulling it backward, up and down ramps, two thirteen year-old girls Hattie (Jane Keitel) and Pepper (Lori Lawrence) could easily be mistaken for the daughters of Mother Courage. But this isn't Poland in the 17th century during the midst of the Thirty Years War. It is rather the Oregon Trail in 1847. The trek that these two friends have embarked upon and share as members of a formidable wagon train that stretches for a mile and half, is fraught with danger and adventure, even the possibility of romance.

The gap that often exists between children's theater and theater considered satisfying/acceptable entertainment for mature adults has been gainfully closed by playwright Julie Jensen. In her adventurous and appealing Across The Wide and Lonesome Prairie we share the experiences as well as the hopes and aspirations of Hattie and Pepper as they make their way from Missouri to Oregon. Mostly, it is a tale about courage.

Although the press release realistically recommends the play for ages eight and up, the plot, as it unfolds from the viewpoint of the rough and ready Hattie and the more demurely ascribed Pepper is packed with enough incidents to keep the attention of children even a bit younger. It is apparent from the start that the immediately endearing, hard-working actors Keitel and Lawrence have what it takes to create convincing portraits of two girls on the verge of womanhood. Hattie is the spunkier and flintier of the two but also the one inclined to write down her thoughts and day-to-day experiences in a journal — that is until it is lost while they are navigating the raging waters of the Colorado River. Pepper is the more tentative and inclined to slipping and sliding more awkwardly on the inhospitable terrain. But she's also destined to be the first to fall in love.

Under the impressively detailed direction of John Pietrowski, we take delight in the gradual maturing of Hattie and Pepper and also become admirers of the way they instinctively become acute observers of the behavior of others in the wagon party. The author has amusingly and affectionately characterized both girls who display an enviable ability to confront and surmount the perils that befall them. It is inspiring to watch them take the initiative and carry on in the face of personal pain, injuries, and family tragedies.

Nothing escapes Hattie's sharp eyes, particularly a Mrs. Keeler whom she sees stealing things from others with regularity. She also notices with some misgivings that Pepper might just be ready for romance with a young man. What they experience and feel is the essence of the play.

Jensen, the author of some thirty plays and resident playwright at Salt Lake Acting Company, has come up with a dramatically envisioned journal of young American womanhood that is both insightful and involving. The beauty of the dialogue between the girls is that sounds true to the era and honest in its emphasis on the priorities of these young women.

But romance is given lesser importance than is the incredible difficulty they have as a team in forging a river, crossing inhospitable terrain, and wondering if they might encounter the same fate as befell the Donner Party that was trapped by snow in the Sierra Nevada the year before. They support each other through the grief brought on by the death of loves ones, including Hattie's three sisters and Pepper's brother.

Although there is a built-in fear that comes with the possibility getting captured by Indians, we are engaged in the girls' more immediate threat of contracting a deadly fever or the possibility of being poisoned by hemlock that they have unwittingly gathered for a stew. A marvelous scene finds Hattie and Pepper on the edge of a cliff where they decide to scratch out their names in the rock for posterity. A hearty laugh is generated when the girls decide to include the date because, as Hattie says, "Yes, the date because we are among the first white people to cross this way. But there will be many more, because of manifest destiny. " To which Pepper responds, "What's manifest destiny? "

The set design created by Drew Francis is modest, but is never in need of more than it craftily evokes. I appreciated that significant dates and places where the action takes place are projected on a screen. Costume designer Lauren Rockman has dressed up Hattie and Pepper in the classic pioneer women's garb. Sound designer Jeff Knapp employs the sounds of rushing water, neighing horses and distant human voices to good effect.

This co-production between Playwrights Theatre and The Growing Stage should attract significant family attendance at these two venues and in the future at other regional theatres where it will surely be enjoyed. At its best, the play does more than embrace the breadth and depth of the lasting/life-long friendship between Hattie and Pepper, but specifically brings into focus the indomitable pioneering spirit of the younger people who took on the challenge of the Oregon Trail.

Across The Wide and Lonesome Prairie
By Julie Jensen
Directed by John Pietrowski

Cast: Jane Keitel (Hattie), Lori Lawrence (Pepper)
Scenic Design: Drew Francis
Costume Design: Lauren Rockman
Sound Design: Jeff Knapp
Running Time: 1 hour 25 minutes no intermission
Playwrights Theatre, 33 Green Village Road, Madison, N.J.
(973) 514 - 1787 X 10
Tickets ($25.00; $22.50 for seniors, $20.00 for book clubs and groups of 10 or more and $15 for students)
Preview 11/04/10
Opened 11/05/10
Ends 11/21/10
Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance 11/07/10
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