CMU’s ‘The Way Out West’ is a long way off

By October 10, 2018 October 12th, 2018 One Comment

Carnegie Mellon University presents the world premiere of Liza Birkenmeier’s drama The Way Out West directed by Kim Weild. Birkenmeier is a recent graduate of CMU and it’s nice to see her work done as part of the mainstage CMU season. The school doesn’t usually feature its playwrights (current or former) so prominently, but since she graduated in 2012, Birkenmeier has tallied up quite an impressive resume of awards and productions.

And Weild makes her debut as a director at CMU where she is also a new hire. She, too, has a long list of distinguished credits; on and off-Broadway, the West Coast and internationally.

The Way Out West is about some of the women at Los Alamos in the 40’s … that, of course, means the Manhattan Project and America’s efforts to create an atomic bomb. Most of the women are wives of the scientists working in labs, although one is a scientist herself (much to the continued chagrin of the project manager) and another is a German refugee.

The Way Out West continues through October 13. Carnegie Mellon University, Oakland.

As this play tells it, life at Los Alamos – especially if you didn’t have one of the “glamour” jobs – was hard indeed. Inhabitants, because of security concerns, were literally cut off from the rest of the world, stuck in the middle of the desert with limited supplies and, obviously, such a place is going to be a pressure cooker for personal problems.
And that’s it from me! Thank you ladies and gentleman and will the last one out turn off the lights?

It’s at this point in the review when, normally, I’d talk about the script and provide my opinion on how successful I believe Birkenmeier, and Weild, have been in meeting their objectives.
But I’ve got a problem.

Albert Einstein once said there were only seven people in the world who completely understood the theory of relativity. I’d guess that the number of people who understand this play is probably less – and I’m definitely not one of them.

I have no idea what I saw or, more importantly, how to describe it. We bounce around from scenes of kitchen sink realism to unexplained flashes of weird theatricality. One moment we’re following the travails of new arrival Leona as she acclimates to the isolation, then we jump to an over-amplified J. Robert “Father of the Atomic Bomb” Oppenheimer, leading the cast through a series of yoga exercises spouting mindfulness platitudes.

Sometimes we’re watching a marriage fall apart in soap opera terms, and then, out of nowhere, we zoom into a nightclub in 1999 involving people we’ve never met talking about things we don’t know. Then it’s back to the 1940’s and that scene is never referenced again.

Characters are only sketches at this point, much of the “story” is underdeveloped to the point of inscrutability and Birkenmeier’s intent is as unfocussed as her thesis. Is this play about a woman’s journey? Is it a debate concerning American’s imperialism? A meditation on our place in the cosmos? Or, maybe, a statement on the gender gap in STEM sciences.
You tell me.

This student company seems to be as tentative as the script but in their defense, right now these aren’t so much roles to be played as ideas to be guessed at.
I’d say that Birkenmeier has some more work to do.

The Way Out West continues through October 13. Carnegie Mellon University, Oakland. 412/268-2407.

Ted Hoover is the Pittsburgh Current Theater Critic. Contact him at

One Comment

  • Frank Correnti says:

    Ted Hoover has us at a disadvantage. He has not the courtesy to couch his mystery at not being able to put disparate historical and futuristic elements together in an interesting and intelligent plausibility, but instead pretends to negatively douse a mature play, I suspect by a playwright who “since she graduated in 2012, Birkenmeier has tallied up quite an impressive resume of awards and productions.” Hardly a blurb that indicates a history of confusion & difficulty. I rather trust the writer and my own imagination especially since suspension of disbelief is a skill we should all have accomplished by First year at CMU.

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