It’s easy to imagine the scene: a teacher announces to her grade school students, “It’s time for our daily lesson in Nevada history” — and the snoozefest begins.
Rainbow Company’s been helping make the lessons a bit more palatable with their 20-year-old “Nevada Series” — lighthearted sketches that salute the well-known and obscure folks from our state’s early days.
Their latest installment, “Across the Truckee” — which played to the public last weekend at the Historic Fifth Street School and is set to tour to more than 14,000 Clark County students within the next four months — follows the group’s traditional approach.
Five actors (Michael Connelly, Sean Critchfield, Kearsten Kuroishi, Joshua Stackhouse and Martha Watson) portray 29 characters, most living in the late 1800s Virginia City area. This time out writer/director (and Rainbow’s artistic director) Karen McKenney frames the action within a campy television show. Our foppish host named Very Friendly (Critchfield) invites the audience to watch the tales of four old-timers and vote for their favorites. (Kids will love that.) In between there are humorously horrible commercials that bring to mind TV’s early days. (My favorite: Connelly’s seemingly romantic infatuation with a carpet sweeper.)
Children may be surprised to learn that Nevada isn’t all about gambling and that the Western frontier wasn’t always so nice to those who wanted to tame it.
I particularly liked that the episodes give an enjoyable whiff of the early settlers’ daily life. Even though the material is often light and comical, you come to understand the hard work and disappointments that these characters had to endure, the double-crossings, the arguments over claims, the maddening attempts to find virgin territory, the battle against nature.
One man is so homesick and discouraged that he cedes his claim on a mine so that he can pay a laundry bill and go back East. It turns out he unknowingly gave away a fortune. When a fire kills a score of workers, the miners organize for the first time over safety issues. And when a photographer tries to record laborers toiling away, he has to convince them that his camera is not a weapon. (In one of the script’s funniest moments, the laborers — seeing an old photo of dead soldiers — come to believe it’s the camera that killed the soldiers and will kill them, too.)
The show doesn’t play like stiff it’s-good-for-you medicine. The actors are really actors — chummy, versatile, amusing, and in pleasant contrast from each other. Their multiple accents are a reminder of the different sorts of hopefuls who came here in search of a better life.
Among the characters they play are names that are already familiar to some (including the tragic Henry T. Comstock, who committed suicide and celebrated photographer Timothy H. O’Sullivan, who died young).
Of course, these approximately one-hour sketches aren’t in-depth studies; students won’t come away with lots of details. But I suspect the productions spur lots of interest in the minds of kids who will want to learn more. Much as I enjoy the showmanship of these entertainments, the most valuable thing I’ve taken away is a newly acquired interest in visiting small Nevada towns. The Virginia City area is now next on my list.
Anthony Del Valle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can write him c/o Las Vegas Review-Journal, P.O. Box 70, Las Vegas, NV 89125.