An exceptional new play is at Omaha Community Playhouse. Eminent Domain by Nebraska’s Laura Leininger-Campbell makes a world debut performed by an ensemble with impressive talent guided with thorough perception by one of this city’s best directors.
Indeed, a sense of community beautifully pervades this story; it takes place in our state and dwells on a family whose troubles, loves and lives could certainly resemble our own.
The title, on the surface, refers to a government’s, a corporation’s or a citizen’s legal right to confiscate private air, water and land rights when providing compensation. Each of those two words of the title carries further meanings especially “eminent,” i.e., important and “domain, as in “land” or a field of knowledge. Look deeper if you want.
Clearly the foundation for this story concerns a situation much like current struggles over the Keystone XL Pipeline and its possible threat to farmland in this state. That volatile issue is the impetus to explore roots of a family threatened with unwanted transformation of the soil on which they stand. Which is to say that this is more about family than about ongoing environmental issues.
The exterior of the MacLeod’s farm house is the setting. Home. Trent Nichols, representing a powerful Canadian corporation, attempts to get family head Rob MacLeod to sign over a portion of the land for an oil pipeline in return for a generous amount of money. Rob’s refusal spurs his family to come together and dig into their lives and their connectedness. Daughter Adair, a California lawyer, returns home to try to legally take on the struggle, working with Mateusz (Matt) Wojciechowski, a lawyer representing a national environmental issues group. Other people in this gathering are Rob’s one-time writer son Bart and his wife Theresa, Rob’s brother Cam and his wife Jane, plus Cam’s mentally challenged son Evan, Rob’s farmhand.
Among the complexities, Rob and Adair have long been estranged. Rob hews to traditional views about social issues and culture while Adair has gone in an opposite direction. Friction inevitably underpins their relationship. It becomes clear that Bart and Theresa have their own disquiet about deferring their outside world ambitions to work on this farm. And Trent displays extra dimensions the longer he’s around. Amid sometimes amusing, sometimes seriously fractious moments, banter, seething anger and major confrontations, solidly dramatic surprises emerge. Religious faith, women’s roles and family kinships are also explored.
Leininger-Campbell makes all of that work superbly. For one so new to playwriting, she has insights and ways to express them equal to produced writers with much more extensive experience. She makes these characters more complex and substantial than you might initially think. Certainly Rob, Bart and Theresa are no rural stereotypes. Excellent writing cumulatively reveals depth in all these people. Witness Matt’s eloquent, beautiful speech about the special meaning and texture of the land in our state. The love radiates. Meanwhile, time for hope and resolution ticks along, personified in Evan’s treasured family heirloom watch.
This cast has become an outstanding ensemble, as if these performers are some kind of a real family. Each person brings across a thoroughly convincing and natural sense of his or her character. Bill Hutson especially stands out as Rob, going through many phases of strength, foolishness, vulnerability and pride. You can feel the heat in the painful passion of Jeremy Estill’s Bart. Thomas Becker gives Matt sweet, enduring solidity. And Chris Shonka makes Trent’s many sides abundantly clear.
Credit director Amy Lane for eliciting these performances. And for staging everything with a natural flow, as if, standing in an open field, these people grow and develop in spite of rain, heat and travail.
The remarkable eminent production embraces us all, saying that we are all family, despite threats to where and how we live.
Eminent Domain is performed through Sept. 17. Howard Drew Theatre, Omaha Community Playhouse, 6915 Cass Street. Thurs-Sat.: 7:30 p.m. Sun: 2 p.m. Tickets: $22-$36.http://www.omahaplayhouse.com/