at a crossing, past and present collide in Nancy Moss’s Deception.
The opening scene of Nancy Moss’s new play, Deception, introduces us to Anne Winter just as she is receiving a surprise visit at the bonnet shop she owns in Portland, OR. Hailing from an unknown place back east, Ms. Winter, portrayed by Damaris Webb, left behind a previous existence without telling a soul, to reinvent herself out west. Her half-brother Caleb Walthman has tracked her down somehow and his arrival is perceived as an immediate threat to Ms. Winter. Just as the laced, flowery bonnets she sells deflect the sun from white powdered faces, her new life shadows a mysterious past. She is baffled and upset upon seeing him, but keeps her emotions carefully concealed. The audience quickly learns how clever and versed she is at hiding things.
Deception was read aloud by five cast members standing at the front of the Old Church in downtown Portland this Tuesday morning, in front of an old pipe organ, the first and only one of its kind in the city. The towering brass pipes reaching toward the high ceilings of the church serve as the only backdrop for this staged reading, featured as part of the Fertile Ground Festival. There are no costume changes or props, and rarely do the actors look at each other as they read. And frankly, my imagination didn’t need any other fixings. Nancy Moss’ words alone, delivered as vividly and lively as old photographs by the actors, transported me to the 1880’s, the era in which the historic organ was given to the church, and the time in which Deception is set.
The 1880’s landscape of Portland is a treacherous one for African-Americans. The Exclusion Laws passed in the 1840’s created a highly tense atmosphere, and though some were repealed in the following decades, the fears and distrust generated by the laws lingered in the atmosphere like a prolonged, vengeful hangover. Caleb, portrayed by Joseph Gibson, is an African American man. Ms. Winter and he share a mother, but Ms. Winter’s father was a white man. In her journey to Portland, she has done what she could to shed her black roots to assimilate in the predominantly white culture of Portland. “I used to study white girls as a little girl.” Ms. Winter tells Caleb. She watched how they moved and how they spoke. She says “she watched the river too” and I see her as a young girl, wanting so much for there to be something else and sadly coming to realize it wasn’t going to happen where she was. She had to move like the river.
And so she lands in Portland with a bonnet shop. There is a gap between her and her brother, one she has painstakingly worked to stretch, adding more and more space between her present and her past, including family. She speaks in a different cadence, slower and more even than her brother, and with restrained emotion. He is excited, wonders aloud about why she left, and makes her uncomfortable with his intuitive understanding of her embedded embarrassment. But the sister/brother banter slowly assumes a natural ease that time and distance has done nothing to erode. Her learned charm dissolves. She happily reminisces about their Mama back in Louisiana, how she used to sing while drying handkerchiefs. Caleb remembers working and picking peas, how he would pretend to cough and slip a pea into his mouth. She remembers making dolls out of corn husks.
She has sacrificed a lot. But the costs of such sacrifices easily slip to the back of the mind when one finds themselves in the center of exciting times and in the company of fawning and mesmerized powerful men. Ms. Winter is deemed a ”lady of mystery” and in possession of a valuable, inexplicable quality to stir things up and extract things from people by her charm alone.
“You came into town like a summer storm” says Conrad Ryan, the smooth talking land investor played by Brett Wilson, who hopes Ms. Winter’s allure can help him with a scheme to uncover the future of the two railroad companies in Portland. Gerhard Schull, played by Gary Brickner-Schultz, has come from Hamburg, equipped with lots of money and an equal dose of dismay and wonder of Americans, to decide whether to extend either the East or West Portland railway line to San Francisco, rendering the land on only one side worth an extraordinary amount of money. Conrad Ryan wants to know which side. Schull likens Ryan to a vulture, “hoping to make lots of money with no work” and keeps the plans secretly tucked away from the greedy American.
Everyone is on some side of deception, beholden to secrets or trying to maneuver in crafty manners. Caleb, too, sees potential for himself in Portland, a place where “solid buildings built by solid men” presents an opportunity and he turns to his mastery of poker to make a few bucks. Everyone is on guard, vigilant for the dishonesty of others, better attuned to reading bluffs then truths at every turn. These people are jaded, either by circumstance or by the decisions they’ve made. They are ambitious and genuinely want something better; they want to realize the glimpses they’ve all had of prosperity and liberation. But in their dogged pursuits, they’ve risked losing love and connection along the way, often going about things in crooked ways, misleading or being misled. Their gains are deceptively accompanied by emptiness.
I shouldn’t say everyone. There is Becky, played by the delightful Emily Welch. The play is funny; all of the characters garner laughs from the audience. But Becky serves as a sharp and sweet comic relief as well as a refreshingly unjaded, transparent view of things. She is younger and inexperienced and somewhat of a sponge for town gossip. She is observant and has a keen understanding of how people work beyond her years. When Ms. Winter announces that she’ll be attending a party with Conrad Ryan (on whom Becky gushes over and I get the idea, most woman in town have crushes on) Becky says, “People will be looking at you. You know, not outright, sort of sideways. The way they do.” She’s aware of the many faces people wear, but wears only one herself.
Ms. Winter is seen as a stranger and a newcomer in town. But she has established a business and is known to people, albeit as the mysterious stranger. She has been there long enough. She feels like a stranger because she is estranged from herself and I can’t see her feeling any other way, no matter how long she is in Portland. Her old life in Louisiana is a distant memory, one she shares with no one until the arrival of Caleb. And her new life in Portland is still like a dream in which she pretends to live.
Conrad Ryan tells her these are exciting times. “Progress,” he says, “is happening all around us. Like breathing air, we don’t think about it but its happening.” Deception explores what it means to progress, as individuals and a society. The staged reading by the cast, directed by Jane Ferguson, gave Moss’ play an exquisite and entertaining airing of the values of family, integrity and trust in a difficult, rapidly changing world, one scarred with loss and sacrifice.
The organ at the Old Church has been restored over the years but it still works the way it did in the 1880’s. It was never converted for electricity, which was common practice throughout the twentieth century. I suppose that is progress. Indeed, it still “uses mechanical connections and hand-pumping rather than electricity to produce a unique sound.” The progress made here is just maintenance: to preserve something’s original form. Perhaps for Ms. Winter, for us all, progress will begin when it aligns with truth, acknowledging where we come from and celebrating who we truly are.