Stu Richel’s one man play Mortal Decisions: A Diary of the Donner Party gives a trim overview of the events that led to the Party’s becoming stranded in the Sierra Nevada Mountains and resorting to now infamous acts of cannibalism in order to survive. But in cautiously reining in the melodrama, Richel holds back on some of the drama inherent in the Donner Party’s tragic story of an American pioneer dream gone horribly awry.
Reviewed by Ilena George
As part of the Metropolitan Playhouse’s season on Virtue (“the eighth deadly sin”), Stu Richel’s Mortal Decisions promises a critical look at the Donner Party—at the mistakes made and whether the figures whom history has forgiven or damned truly deserve their posthumous fates—from the perspective of James Frazier Reed, one of the Party’s influential leaders. With the help of an illustrative, if rudimentary, map hanging behind him, Richel diagrams the path the Party took across the country, explaining their choices at each fork in the road, examining who was to blame and praising the unsung heroes whom history has overlooked. Having come into the show with little knowledge about the fateful events of 1846-1847, I definitely walked away from the show with a better understanding of this piece of American history.
“[We were] pioneers, but not frontiersmen,” Reed explains; the Party’s members were stalwart but still not prepared for the conditions they found themselves in when their journey west began taking far longer than they expected and food and other supplies dwindled to nothing; desperation began setting in, as well as a willingness to commit desperate acts. Although the Party had up to 87 people in its ranks, Richel’s selection of which members of the Donner Party to describe, and sometimes depict for a line or two, is generally well done and easy to follow. Only the timing of events was sometimes muddled: there were several attempts made by different groups to rescue the people stranded in the mountains and it was unclear who was coming and going, and when.
Conveying all the hope of pioneers beginning a journey and the impotent rage of someone who knows the consequences of a poor decision and is unable to stop it, Richel’s delivery carries emotional weight but is still marked by its restraint. It seems that in trying to avoid the melodrama that could be a pitfall in the telling of this particular story, Richel has avoided some of the drama that makes the Donner’s tragedy compelling. Despite his claims to freshly appraise the group’s actions, as well as those of its individual members, Richel chooses as his narrator a member of the Party who was not present to witness the group’s cannibalism, which he mentions but does not explore in detail. Richel’s account paints a vivid picture of people stretched to the limits of their physical and emotional endurance, but where exactly does the critical perspective step in?
During the talkback, Richel parceled out a few tidbits from his vast pantry of knowledge on the subject—for instance, that Reed was caught in the Spanish American War and could not return to help the stranded members of the Party. I couldn’t help feeling that the play would have benefited from the seasoning these details would have provided.
Mortal Decisions: A Diary of the Donner Party
Metropolitan Playhouse (220 East 4th Street)
Tickets: (212) 995-5302: $15 General Admission, $12 Seniors, $10 Students
February 8th-16th, Friday and Saturday at 8pm
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