THEATER REVIEW: “Men on Boats” @ Sand Lake Center for the Arts [Berkshire on Stage]
Review by Gail M. Burns
There are no men on stage in the Acting Class with Patrick White’s presentation of Jaclyn Backhaus’ Men on Boats at the Sand Lake Center for the Arts. Nor were there any in the original Clubbed Thumb production at Playwrights Horizons in 2016. The cast of 12 are all cisgender women and all but one, white. But the members of the Powell Geographic Expedition of 1869 being dramatized were, of course, all cisgender men. I say “of course” because the idea of the government sending a late 19th century white woman out to explore the western wilderness was preposterous, even though thousands of pioneer women from a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds were out there homesteading, giving birth, and raising families under equally stark conditions at that very time.
This is the story told in the play:
Major John Wesley Powell, a professor of geology at the Illinois State Normal School and a curator of the Illinois Museum of Natural History, embarked with nine men from Green River Station in the Wyoming Territory and traveled downstream on the Green and Colorado rivers through parts of the present-day states of Colorado, Utah and Arizona before reaching the confluence of the Colorado and Virgin rivers in present-day Nevada. They were the first white men to ride through the Grand Canyon in its entirety.