Still right on the money Review: Mother Lode Productions takes liberties with Depression-era "Waiting for Lefty," and the result is an interpretation that blends period flavor and modern sensibility.

August 07, 1996|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

As our country's leadership slides farther to the right, Mother Lode Productions continues its support of the left by reviving one of America's landmark political dramas -- Clifford Odets' "Waiting for Lefty."

This local theater company dedicated to political change isn't content with a mere revival, however. Director Joe Brady's skillfully performed production includes several interesting additions to Odets' Depression-era, one-act play.

The first of these is evident as soon as you take your seat.

Shlomi Abukassis' two-level set design includes three video monitors.

Odets structured "Waiting for Lefty" as a series of vignettes linked by the common thread of a heated union meeting in which New York taxicab drivers vote to strike. The drivers serve as a chorus, commenting on the action in the vignettes. Brady, however, adds another set of links between scenes by inserting videotaped interviews (designed by David Crandall) with Baltimore taxi drivers and representatives of various unions.

Another addition is an opening scene of the dying playwright in his hospital bed, attended by a nurse. Brady gives the character of Odets the first and last words in this production. Both of these book-end scenes -- the final scene is based on a television interview Odets gave in 1963, six months before he died -- raise the issue of the last unproductive decade and a half of Odets' life.

This lack of productivity relates to a theme that recurs throughout the play -- the question of what it takes to be a man. Harry Fatt, the corrupt union leader menacingly played by Brian P. Chetelat, yells just that -- "Be a man!" -- near the start of the union meeting. Throughout most of the play, Fatt and his gun-toting henchmen stand guard over the meeting and the audience. Brady scatters actors in the theater seats, creating the theatre verite feeling that we are attending an actual union meeting, instead of a play.

Almost every vignette -- including a rarely performed one about an actor -- returns to the theme of taking a stand and being man. The most effective, however, directly concern the fate of the struggling cabbies.

In the first vignette -- played with heated intensity by Garlic Jones and Johanna Cox -- a taxi driver is confronted by his fed-up wife on a day when their furniture has been repossessed and she has had to put the children to bed without dinner. Later, in a quieter but similarly moving scene, Jacqueline Underwood and Anthony T. Reda play a deeply devoted young couple who painfully break their engagement because he doesn't make enough as a cab driver to support them.

These empathetic scenes still resound 60 years later. But interestingly, the videotaped interviews with local cab drivers suggest that not only are conditions better than in New York in 1935, but also that the formation of a union here would be difficult. (Panel discussions on "Unions in America Today" will follow the two matinees.)

Mother Lode's interpolations add a modern sensibility to "Waiting for Lefty" without sacrificing its period flavor. But the final interview with Odets depletes the energy that made this play's 1935 debut legendary -- not only because it received 28 curtain calls, but also because the audience joined the cast in yelling "Strike!"

On opening night at the Merrick Barn, however, the audience remained fixed in its seats, uncertain the play was over. Mother Lode may be clear about its politics, but its sense of dramatic climax needs a little fine-tuning.

Pub Date: 8/07/96

'Waiting for Lefty'

Where: Mother Lode Productions, Merrick Barn, Johns Hopkins University

When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, matinees at 2 p.m. Aug. 11 and Aug. 18. Through Aug. 24

Tickets: $10

Call: (410) 526-5995

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