In "Stand-Off at Hwy #37," a world premiere by Native Voices at the Autry, playwright Vickie Ramirez probes the ambiguous political landscape between Native and non-Native American territories.
In upstate New York, residents of a reservation have organized a protest against an encroaching highway. A deceptively mild-mannered tribal elder, Aunt Bev (peppery LaVonne Rae Andrews), directs fellow protester Darrin (the scene-stealing Kalani Queypo) to place her armchair right on top of the disputed border. The National Guardsmen assigned to the proceedings ask her to move. Sweetly, she refuses.
One of the Guardsmen, Thomas Doxdater (Eagle Young), grew up on the reservation. Eager to prove himself professionally, he nonetheless struggles against his loyalty to Aunt Bev and even the freewheeling slacker Darrin, with whom he shares a complex past. It doesn't help that the protest's strident organizer, Sandra (DeLanna Studi), taunts Thomas for wearing "the uniform of an occupying power" and being "an apple: red on the outside, white on the inside."
As if this all weren't stressful enough, Thomas' crusty captain, Hewitt (Matt Kirkwood), keeps reminding him that if he can't budge Aunt Bev, he might not be the right man for the job. And his ambitious colleague, Linda Baldwin (the likable Tinasha LaRayé), whom Sandra addresses as "Murder Drone Barbie," would love to show him up.
Finally, a New York Times reporter, Evelyn Lee (the engaging Fran de Leon), is on the scene to broadcast Thomas' inevitable breakdown and its repercussions, which she describes as "a real cowboys-and-Indians battle."
The issues are well laid out, each of the performers is strong and the script is often pointed and witty, but Ramirez's efforts to represent all sides thoroughly in a reversal-packed plot requires a great deal of expository dialogue that increasingly evokes a town-hall meeting about land rights.
Although director Jon Lawrence Rivera keeps the polished production — with an appealing set by Jeff McLaughlin, projections by Adam Flemming and sound by Cricket S. Myers — clipping along smoothly, the characters never really develop beyond interesting types.
"Stand-Off at Hwy #37," Wells Fargo Theater at the Autry National Center, 4700 Western Heritage Way, L.A. 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Ends March 16. $20 (323) 667-2000, ext. 299 or www.NativeVoicesattheAutry.org. Running time: 1 hour, 15 minutes.