“Men on Boats,” by Jaclyn Backhaus, is currently playing at Silver Spring Stage. It follows the 1869 expedition of John Wesley Powell (Stephanie Dorius) who led nine men to map out the terrain and waterways of the Green and Colorado Rivers and the surrounding areas. He was sent to do this by President Garfield and had previously navigated many waterways, including the entirety of the Mississippi. By the time he went on this voyage, Powell had lost an arm during the Civil War. His brother, simply known as Old Shady (Leena S. Dev), was part of his team. The adventure ended at the Grand Canyon where few non-natives had seen this unbelievable natural phenomenon. The journey was full of challenges. The explorers had to scale waterfalls, lost vital supplies, and food was often what they could find, catch, or kill. There were rattlesnakes and other dangerous animals. Native tribes and settlers could be hostile and the group was not always harmonious.
If you want to see a wonderful adventure at the theatre and one of American’s greatest expeditions, don’t miss ‘Men on Boats’ at Silver Spring Stage.
This play is unique because Backhaus states the cast should not be made up of cisgender white males and this cast reflects her wishes. The reason she requires this is because she feels today’s cis men might not be able to understand the mentality of the males of that time. Backhaus felt that a multi-gender and multi-racial cast might better portray that era.
The approach works and I had no problems feeling engaged in the action. The talented cast wins you over and engages you in the journey. In the end, this is really just a good adventure story. The actors are wonderfully choreographed as they paddle their boats down the rivers, riding rapids, and navigating waterfalls.
If Backhaus’s script has a flaw, it is a lack of character development. I wanted to learn more about the individuals and why they embarked on this dangerous journey. By the end, with one exception, I was not sure what made them tick.
The ensemble cast did a top rate job and tried to create each character’s story internally. You will immediately remember them because the actors have developed individual quirks and speech patterns to help distinguish one from another. But I wanted more. The ending seems abrupt and somewhat unsatisfying.
Dorius is a stand-out as the one-armed Powell, and Jenny Gleason also shines as William Dunn, Powell’s right-hand man. They both excel in the scenes where conflicts between the two arise regarding their mission.
The rest of the fine cast include Kate Yee as John Colton Sumner, Dev as Old Shady, Amanda Matousek as George Young Bradley, Erica Smith as O.G. Howland/Johnson, Charlie Williams as Seneca Howland/Just Jim, Jill Goodrich as Frank Goodman/Mr. Asa, Melissa Blum as Andrew Hall, and Hope Weltman as William Robert Hawkins.
Erin Bone Steele’s direction, especially the choreography of the rowing, is powerful and imaginative. Rose Hull did the very creative set design, constructing boat frames and a backdrop of the raging and magnificent rivers. Jennifer Morrissey’s interesting costumes reflect the time. Don Slater’s lighting design contributes to the beautiful, yet frightening atmosphere, and the sound design by Rich Frangiamore brings the sounds of the wilderness into the theatre.
If you want to see a wonderful adventure at the theatre and one of American’s greatest expeditions, don’t miss “Men on Boats” at Silver Spring Stage.
Advisory: There is some strong language but the play is suitable for all ages.
Running Time: One hour and 35 minutes with no intermission.
“Men on Boats” runs weekends through February 19, 2023 at Silver Spring Stage, 10145 Colesville Road, Silver Spring, MD 20901. For more in formation and tickets, go online. You can also contact the Box Office with questions by calling (301) 593-6036 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Masks are required.