This side of an amusement park, you’re unlikely to find more thrills, chills and death-defying spills than in “Men on Boats,” now at Son of Semele theater in L.A.
Jaclyn Backhaus based her meticulously researched play on the travel journals of John Wesley Powell, a one-armed Civil War veteran whose 1869 expedition to survey the Grand Canyon was perhaps the last great exploration into the uncharted West. In four wooden boats, Powell and his ragtag crew of veteran soldiers, trappers and adventurers braved whitewater and waterfalls along the Colorado River, never knowing whether they would ever emerge from the canyon’s grip.
Backhaus’ play is performed, as the playwright intends, by a cast that’s female or nonbinary. It’s no gimmick. That device deepens our connection to what otherwise might have been a standard recapitulation of historical events. Audaciously anachronistic contemporary language lends further immediacy to the proceedings.
David B. Marling’s magnificent sound design takes pride of place among the technical elements, which include Carlo Maghirang’s set, Allen Clark’s lighting and Wyndell C. Carmichael’s costumes. Painter tarps, ladders and a movable scaffold create various effects — campsites, mountains, boats whooshing down roaring rapids. Ben Kutner’s original music also contributes to the wild, wistful mood.
Director Barbara Kallir deftly traverses the play’s logistical intricacies. Moreover, she creates a convincing fraternal bond among this “brotherhood” — which feels all the more wrenching when dissension splits its ranks.
Melissa Coleman-Reed plays Powell, the tenacious tactician who never loses heart in the most death-defying circumstances. Jinny Ryann is particularly resonant as Dunne, the hunter and trapper who fatally defects on the verge of victory. Others in the excellent cast include Shelby Corley, Taylor Hawthorne, Liz Lanier, Cindy Lin, Tiana Randall-Quant, Thea Rodgers, Ashley Steed and Elspeth Weingarten — all richly worthy of mention.
At adventure’s end, a crusty Nevada settler points out, clairvoyantly, that although Powell will live on in fame, most of his intrepid crew will die in destitution and obscurity. It’s a poignant coda — a reminder that, in the relentless Old West, sheer heroism was not always its own reward.
When: 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays, 7 p.m. Tuesdays, through July 28
Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes
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