Annie Schwaner and Heidi Van. Photo: Cynthia Levin

The problem of homelessness in America gets a lot of attention. We are concerned when we see people sleeping on sidewalks or under bridges. In a lot of cities, we provide homeless shelters. We are used to seeing people asking for money at stoplights. However, the current show at the Unicorn Theatre, Nomad Motel, shines a light on a type of homelessness that is usually not noticed at all.

Annie Schwaner and Eric Palmquist. Photo: Cynthia Levin

The main characters of the show, which continues through Feb. 17, are two high school seniors, Alix and Mason. Mason is a young Japanese man living by himself in a big house while his father remains in Hong Kong. Mason gets money from his father to pay the bills, and a lady comes in to check on him. When he’s not working on homework or applying to college, he makes music to channel his inner confusion, sadness and rage.

Meanwhile, Mason’s classmate Alix lives in a motel with her mother and two younger brothers. They lost their house when Alix’s father left and they couldn’t pay the mortgage. After things get really bad, Alix finds herself homeless for real.

The character arcs of the two students have a nice symmetry – Mason’s mother is out of the picture, and he feels abandoned by his father. Alix’s father is out of the picture and she feels abandoned by her mother. Both kids are essentially homeless, but in different ways.

In addition, there is a third metaphorical type of homelessness in the character of Oscar, Alix’s ex-boyfriend, who considers himself to belong wherever Alix is. His attempts to win her back are his way to find his home base in the world.

The play’s themes – racial stereotypes and the plight of Americans who fall through the cracks – are not new. But the production is not heavy-handed, and this is a somewhat new perspective on the topics. The script is well-done, and the characters talk like young adults today do (even though they look a little too old to be in high school).

Justin Barron and Annie Schwaner. Photo: Cynthia Levin

The cast is a mix of familiar Unicorn mainstays and new faces. Walter Coppage has played many kinds of characters over the years. Here, he again exhibits his chameleon-like ability to inhabit different personalities as he portrays Mason’s father, a shady character with a shady job that he doesn’t want his son to see. Heidi Van plays Alix’s mother, whose tough shell doesn’t really cover her deep insecurities and doubts about whether she’s a good mother. The most charismatic actor in the show, however, is Justin Barron, who plays Oscar. He really nails the macho bravado of a teenage male that hides a much more romantic and vulnerable boy.

Nomad Motel is a small, intimate play about parenting, poverty, coming of age, and the inherent insecurities – physical and emotional – that go along with these issues. It shows how kids may learn the exact opposite lesson of what their parents intended. It’s a thoughtful play that brings your attention to an important, real, yet hidden, issue.

Performances of Nomad Motel will be at the Unicorn, 3828 Main St., Kansas City, Mo., through Feb. 17. For tickets, go to www.unicorntheatre.org or call 816-531-7529.

 

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