The dark, dank stage of Portland Center Stage’s production of Astoria, like all the actors on it, plays multiple roles: fort, ship, and forest. The set is reminiscent of old, loamy spruce groves on the Northern Oregon coast, where I lived for 25 years. But Chris Coleman’s adaptation of Peter Stark’s book about John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson’s Lost Pacific Empire—with the subtitle, “A Story of Wealth, Ambition, and Survival”—suggests that the story of westward expansion is more like a vast, detrimental clear-cut than something to applaud.
The Armory’s success in pulling off this play—2017’s best-selling Portland theater production—is a fitting send-off before Coleman relocates to become artistic director for the Denver Center for the Performing Arts Theatre Company. The first of its two installments focused on the American belief in Manifest Destiny, and could be viewed as an epic tribute to rugged founding fathers. But Astoria also implies that the word “survival” in Stark’s subtitle is not only about confronting harrowing natural elements in land and sea expeditions, but also the darkest parts of ourselves. The fictionalized historical characters exhibit excessive greed, ineptitude, arrogance, and a deep sense of entitlement to take what they want when they want it, with no regard for existing human, wildlife, and plant populations.
The play’s second installment considers the costs inherent in establishing the first city built on fur trade, though the first half of the play offered no real opinion on them. Still, when Captain Jonathan Thorn (Ben Rosenblatt) looks out at the audience with an icy stare, we can also see the complex, rotted interior of his soul. DeLanna Studi’s portrayal of Marie Dorian gives us a woman literally pregnant with the conflict of being responsible for white men’s lives while sensing that their success will endanger Native Americans. “White men don’t like to share” is a line from Astoria that skulks in my mind, not because it landed as ironic historical commentary, but because the quip echoes an old American story that continues to threaten our survival.