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Theater review: ‘The Way the Mountain Moved’ somehow isn’t that moving

Idris Goodwin is a seriously talented playwright. His work has been produced and developed by such luminary companies as the Steppenwolf Theatre and the Kennedy Center, and his underwriters include the Mellon and Ford Foundations, as well as the National Endowment for the Arts. His “The Way the Mountain Moved” world premiere for Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s vaunted American Revolutions series — out of which has sprung such prodigious work as the Tony Award-winning “All The Way” and PEN Literary Award winner “Roe” — is exceptionally well written, peppered with massively talented actors, filled with powerful scenes of love and betrayal, and is superbly produced in a way that draws the viewer deep into the action.

Despite these substantial qualifiers, the play doesn’t quite come off. In fact, it feels a bit halting and disjointed. For all the possibilities at real genius that exist here, something has gone wrong. As a result, one leaves the theater feeling split — Goodwin’s opus looks and feels like something that should stir up a complex emotional and intellectual response, but it doesn’t. After some reflection, I realized that this show was a simulacrum of a good play; the actors at OSF are among the finest in the nation, and the company can spend money like a drunken oil baron on sound, scenic, and lighting design.

As such, even an OK play or musical can be made to look impressive — witness 2017’s “Beauty and the Beast” — but there is a hole in the middle of this creation that can’t quite be ignored. And while the harsh landscape of the Western frontier and a cruel fascination with an inhospitable land binds the various characters from different walks of life together in a storyline that should be riveting, one can’t shake the feeling that the excellent ensemble cast has not been deftly mobilized.

Bad choices were made in how they were to play their parts, and most of the actors — many of OSF’s finest among them — seem to be ever-so-slightly camping up the drama. It takes a lot for players like these to look even vaguely diffident in front of an audience. On a more hospitable day, I might be willing to suggest that the scale of the production is inappropriate for a venue as intimate as the Thomas Theatre, but that’s not quite it either. On balance — and I hate to say it — the hole in the center of this pudding is probably the fault of a disjointed collaboration between writer and director.

Set in the 1850s somewhere in the Utah desert, the play does have some profoundly inspiring moments. An excellent performance from the perennially reliable Christiana Clark as Martha, playing a distressed African-American Mormon, is glorious to watch, as is the nuanced and powerful performance of Rodney Gardiner as her husband, Orson, who uses his wits and his faith to take on a variety of tormentors. In his role as Luis Núñez Arista, Al Espinosa is incredible as a conflicted and wounded soul who cannot quite escape his own shadow. Sara Bruner is compelling as Phyllis Cook, whose grim expedition into the territories has left her strong but broken, both.

Wonderful scenic and sound design save the production in a variety of ways, and while you might not leave fully satisfied, you will certainly see where your money went. Costumes and lighting are brilliantly rendered, too.

“The Way the Mountain Moved” wraps up with a peculiar and unnecessary final scene that mirrors the self-consciousness of the play as a whole. As a final entry into the American Revolutions Series, which has run from 2008-2018, this ending is more of a whimper than a bang.

Ashland resident Jeffrey Gillespie is a Tidings columnist, arts reviewer and freelance writer. Email him at gillespie.jeffrey@gmail.com.

Krista Unverferth, right, and Robert Vincent Patrick appear in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's "The Way the Mountain Moved." Jenny Graham / OSF