There's something distinctly American about the road trip. Be it on a river (Huckleberry Finn), in a car (On the Road) or on foot (Into the Wild), the promise of the open road, of losing yourself in the desire to find yourself, is engrained in our collective literary consciousness. Most of those tales are highly romantic; protagonists may encounter obstacles and gut-checks, but when the dust settles, there's usually something inspirational in its wake.
That isn't the case in local playwright Eric Eberwein's Great Western Wanderlust, in which a couple seeking to inject spice and adventure into a stultifying marriage embarks on a train ride from St. Louis to Los Angeles. But instead of insight and epic experience, this miserable, uncomfortable journey forces the two to ask the toughest questions of their lives. And, as with all tough questions, there are no simple answers.
Greg (David Pittman) and Kristi (Karen O'Hanlon) are in their mid-30s. He's a dull, St. Louis-area insurance salesman who prefers golf and fantasizing about Jessica Alba. She is his sexually frustrated wife who's desperately tired of life in the Midwest. A brochure touting a trip into the wild, untamed West is just the hammer, she feels, to break them out of their placid routine.
Great Western Wanderlust at Hunger Artists Theatre, www.hungerartists.com. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m. Through May 13. $15-$18.
Unfortunately, the train is apparently the worst in Amtrak's arsenal: undercooked chicken sandwiches, no air conditioning, an unruly rabble and sweaty vagabonds. As the train inches farther into the American West, through the god-forsaken dirt of west Texas (truly the worst stretch of American soil) and the blazing heat of Arizona, Kristi's dream of re-igniting the passion in her marriage slowly turns into a nightmare. By the time the land of Oz (in this case, the Pacific Ocean) is reached, it's clear the issue of their marriage lasting is less important than if they can hold on to their sanity.
In typical road-trip fare, a collection of eccentric characters pops up: a young, Walt Whitman-reading hustler fleeing his past in Salinas; an intense biker-like couple from the garden spot of Indio; a conductor who apparently took his customer-service tips from Charon on a journey across the Styx.
The strength in Eberwein's writing is his skillful blend of harsh reality and undeniably poetic passages. The juxtaposition of this train ride through a boring stretch of human hell with the stirring poetry (both his and Whitman's) punctuates the frustration of wanting to wring joy and sensation from a life that may already be dry. The weakness lies in structure and an off-center first act. The play is a series of very short scenes, each of them ending in black-outs, which keep the play from generating momentum. Characters periodically manifest as a chorus of sorts, commenting on the journey or offering insights, but we're never sure who those characters are. And the first act, which seems overly preoccupied with Greg's and Kristi's sex lives, suffers from a lack of genuine dramatic tension. The train gets moving in the second act, when the introduction of ancillary characters seems less contrived and we finally get a sense of who Greg and Kristi are—or aren't—beyond their sputtering attempts at screwing.
Director Anthony Galleran  doesn't do a great deal to help move Eberwein's words forward. There is no aesthetic to this production—no set to speak of, no auditory or visual sensation to help convey the sense that we are on a train. And the frequent use of clunky black-outs adds to the production's shapeless vagueness.
The lack of production values wounds Eberwein's script, but not mortally. Though it takes a while to warm up to the main characters—they begin as rather unlikeable types who whine too much—by play's end, it's easy to get invested in their stories. Neither Pittman or O'Hanlon seems to have created fully dimensional characters, but each absolutely nails the sense of life passing one by and the growing realization that perhaps each has chosen the wrong partner for that journey.
In the supporting roles, Michael J. Keeney does yeoman work playing multiple characters, each imbued with an intensity that most of the other actors lack, with the notable exception of Patrick Peterson's youthful Bryce, who fulfills the time-honored role of hustler-turned-muse.
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While not a gracefully executed production, it's gratifying to see a theater that helped build itself on original plays once again rolling the dice on a mainstage production by a local writer. And it's especially gratifying to see Eberwein is that writer. He has been creating new plays and facilitating new play development in the county for nearly 20 years. In August, he'll once again help Chapman University professor Tamiko Washington in her second OC-Centric New Play Festival, which will include one full-length and four one-act plays by local writers. Along with the Maverick Theater's recent production of Nathan Makaryk's re-tooled version of Robin Hood and STAGEStheatre's current production of Amanda DeMaio's Unrelenting Relaxation, it's clear OC-based writers have something to say and, equally important, that there are venues willing to provide them the space to be heard.
This review appeared in print as "Last Train to Nowheresville: Great Western Wanderlust chugs its way to satisfaction."
 Corrected May 3, 2012. The director's name was misspelled.