Now Jane (Sarah Baskin) is 14. She smells bad, and she has a crush on Billy (Chris Murray). She wears a black hoodie and is chewing on the strings while she entertains us with great adolescent self-talk.
Social development? Not great. Scholastics? About what one would expect from a slacker wannabe with a body odor problem and a bad attitude. She is playing The Oregon Trail game in the school computer lab while she waits for Mom to pick her up from school.
Then Jane (Alex Leigh Ramirez), also 14, also has a bad attitude. She is being forced to travel to Oregon by covered wagon with her recently widowed father Clancy (Leif Norby) and sister Mary Anne (Emily Yetter). Mary Anne is, in both now and then incarnations, upbeat and positive and a doer. Both Janes think she is a pain in the ass.
This is The Oregon Trail by Bekah Brunstetter, now playing at Portland Center Stage’s Gerding Theatre. It opens in the 1990s–a period of dim memory for some of us. Apparently back then, middle school students were tormented with an interactive computer history game called The Oregon Trail which regularly told them they had died of dysentery.
Fast forward 10 years or so. Now Jane wized up and turned her attention to getting good grades. She graduated college. She had big dreams, but not a lot of direction. She worked at crappy jobs, and currently is unemployed and living on her sister’s couch. She spends a lot of time under a blanket. She still plays The Oregon Trail game, argues with the computer (Leif Norby’s voiceover), and doesn’t have a life. The dialog continues to be smart and funny. But there is a palpable and disturbing overlay of untreated clinical depression.
As Now Jane’s situation worsens, those poor folks on the trail are really having a hard time of it. They’re too busy trying to stay alive to be clinically depressed.
There’s a huge dilemma here. Is Now Jane in need of counseling and pharmaceuticals or is she simply wallowing? What is it going to take for a change–both now and then, on The Oregon Trail?
This is a puzzling play for me. It’s well-acted, well-directed by PCS associate artistic director Rose Riordan, and beautifully staged. Now Jane’s dialog with the ever-present computer game is brilliant. The story, overall, leaves me not so much with a sense of resolution but rather with questions and discomfort. There remains that big elephant in the room. I would have loved to see Bekah Brunstetter deal with it.
The Oregon Trail runs through November 20. Not recommended for the under-16 crowd.