(Review by Andrew Friedenthal, American-Statesman freelance arts critic.)
Dust is the first production from a new Austin theatre company, The Heartland Theatre Collective, and if it is to be any measure, then Heartland is a name we’ll be hearing remarkable things about in the years to come.
The Heartland Theatre Collective’s co-founders, Nicole Oglesby and Marian Kansas (the writer and director of Dust, respectively) are recent graduates from the University of Texas at Austin’s Theatre & Dance Department, who have taken their education and skills out into the greater Austin community. Their focus, according to their website, is, “to unearth previously untold narratives of women in Texan history and feature female actors, playwrights, and directors working in Austin.”
Dust may be the epitome of that goal. The play tells the story of three sisters in the midst of the Dust Bowl in Texas who must make due after the death of their parents, mixing Texas history with feminist issues without sacrificing an engaging plot and emotional performances. Dust manages to be simultaneously a character piece as well as a play about feminist ideas and ideals. If anything, it tries to tackle a few too many weighty themes (it might benefit from a tiny bit more focus on fewer broad ideas), but fortunately the emotional resonance remains strong despite this.
In part, this emotional depth arises from the unique venue in which Dust is produced – the Vortex Theater’s Pony Shed, a tiny, cramped room that recreates the isolated locale of the sisters’ farmhouse. The tiny playing space, and the seating of the audience in the round, creates a fierce intimacy that allows us to feel a part of these women’s lives.
The cast of Dust is very young—they are all current UT students—but they handle these complex characters with compassion, grace, and power. Baylie Figueroa provides perhaps the most nuanced performance as the oldest sister, Liz, who struggles with the fact that she is a lesbian, and with trying to win the love of the worldly, but withholding, Vera (played with great understatement by Hope Higgins). Allison Wojtowecz is June, the middle sister, who is mean, sharp-tongued, and yet still sympathetic and loving. Her boyfriend, Jed, as portrayed by Chance Stewards, is a peripatetic wanderer whose masculinity and self-assurance is riddled with self-doubt as a result of the Dust Bowl and the Depression. Finally, Molly Martinez-Collins plays Annie, the youngest sister, who wrestles with issues of religion and death, and whose growth from naivety to knowingness provides the bookmarked narrative structure of the piece.
Director Marian Kansas does a superb job staging such an intense show in such intimate quarters, and eliciting such powerful performances from her young cast. The rest of the crew—dramaturg Francesca Hyzone, costume designer P.J. Kelly, set and lighting designer Oscar Franco, stage manager Austin Dowling, and assistant stage manager Joshua Sauseda—all deserve accolades for making the show work in such an unusual, and unlikely, venue.
Dust is a powerful, moving new play, and this uniquely staged production is well worth seeing. It is hopefully only the first of many strong theater pieces from the Heartland powerful performances from her young cast. The rest of the crew—dramaturg Francesca Hyzone, costume designer PJ Kelly, set and lighting designer Oscar Franco, stage manager Austin Dowling, and assistant stage manager Joshua Sauseda—all deserve accolades for making the show work in such an unusual, and unlikely, venue.
Dust is a powerful, moving new play, and this uniquely staged production is well worth seeing. It is hopefully only the first of many strong theater pieces from the Heartland Theatre Collective.