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'Destiny' captures humor, hardship of immigration

SOMERVILLE -- Vladimir Zelevinsky couldn't be any more topical if he tried. His newest play, receiving its world premiere with the Theatre Cooperative, is about the emotion and effort involved in immigrating to America.

In ''Manifest Destiny," Zelevinsky weaves together dozens of stories to create a single lens through which an audience can peer. It is a rhythmic, compelling play about the complexities of human motivations. And in showing the promise this country has represented to the rest of the world, Zelevinsky links his script to front-page news.

The first act, ''Manifest," opens with a group of immigrants on a steamer to America. While they watch the rising water in the hold, they share details of their travels, including the things and people they have left behind. There is humor and hardship in the vignettes -- sometimes no longer than a couple of lines -- which go on to span several countries and time periods, from 1492 to the 20th century. Here the word ''manifest" is a literal thing: Each person stepping off the boat must show a slip of paper to prove he or she is part of the manifest, the ship's record of passengers.

The second act, ''Destiny," details what new immigrants encounter upon arrival and how the promise of a better life pulls some of them farther west across the ever-expanding states. Here the script, which was strong throughout Act 1, stumbles when it lingers too long in a scene about a group of pioneers debating how best to cross Snake River.

Four actors create all the characters. Robert Doris, Linda Goetz, Korinne Hertz, and John McClain alternate relationships and countries of origin with ease. Doris gets many of the play's more humorous lines, including an absurd second-act monologue as a representative of the Donner party deliciously explaining the need for dining decorum, even among cannibals. Goetz and Hertz drive the action forward with their efficient and textured performances. McClain occasionally slips into a delivery that borders on narration rather than characterization, however, and many of his scenes suffer as result.

''Manifest Destiny" is the final production from the Theatre Cooperative before it goes on hiatus after nine years of operation. Given this news, there's something fitting about the way the show is presented. Even as lighting designer Amy Lee beautifully bathes the action in color, there is a certain starkness to the space at the Elizabeth Peabody House. There's no scenery to speak of, just a handful of benches and crates that the actors move about. Things look as though they are already half-packed, which works well with the play's themes. Old props are casually camouflaged with black draping. And off to one side, ''Manifest Destiny" director and Theatre Cooperative producing artistic director Lesley Chapman sits in full view, operating the light and sound boards.

Zelevinsky's play is a strong end to this chapter of the company's existence. ''Manifest Destiny" examines how a desired location may not be the ultimate destination. It's unclear what the next iteration of the Theatre Cooperative will be, but there is promise in the final production the company has set sail.

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