American Dream

Playwright Michael Patrick Smith evokes the life and legacy of Woody Guthrie, balladeer of the Great Depression.

March 25, 2004|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

The young actress steps in front of the stage in the basement hall at St. Elizabeth of Hungary Church and recites the first speech of a new play:

"October 3, 1967. Queens, New York. A man lays in bed in Creedmore State Hospital. His entire body is shaking almost imperceptibly like a dry leaf in a slow wind. Woody Guthrie is dying. But he is also dreaming."

Woody Guthrie (1912-1967), the prolific poet-troubadour of Dust Bowl America, died of Huntington's chorea, a hereditary and progressive neurological disorder, the disease that killed his mother. He spent 15 years in hospitals, slowly deteriorating until he could barely speak or write a single word.

The actress is Beverly Shannon. She plays Marjorie Mazia, Guthrie's second wife. The play is Woody Guthrie Dreams Before Dying, which will be performed for the first times tomorrow and Saturday for the Creative Alliance at Patterson Theater.

Michael Patrick Smith wrote the play and plays Guthrie. For this rehearsal he starts stretched flat on a stage where generations of solemn confirmation classes posed for countless photos. He'll be in a hospital bed when the play opens at the Patterson, which is roughly diagonally across Patterson Park from St. Elizabeth's. The play is a dreamwork. It unfolds like recovered memories. Smith speaks his lines from Guthrie's dying dreams.

"Dreaming with my shoes on. Dreaming with my gittar handy. Dreaming out through the pores of my face skins. Dreaming C.I.O. Dreaming N.M.U. Union Dreaming. Dreaming jailhouse doors down. Dreaming down race hate beaters. Dreaming Ku- Kluxers off the planet with my dreams. ..."

"I started work on this project over two years ago," Smith says. "I didn't know a lot about Woody Guthrie at the time. I sort of had an image in my mind of who he was. I had the image of the archetype of the folk singer, traveling across the country with his guitars, on trains."

Freight trains, boxcars packed with men criss-crossing America seeking work, choking on cement dust from the last load, you can read it in Guthrie's 1943 autobiography, Bound for Glory. Woody Guthrie was the prototype, all right, the original Depression era balladeer rambling out of Okemah, Okla., singing the songs of the people he left behind and the people he met on his restless road to no place in particular. Someone said he was always more at home with tramps and hoboes on the road than anybody anywhere else.

Influential

He's perhaps not as well known today as the people he influenced. There are several generations of them: Pete Seeger and Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs and Joan Baez and his son, Arlo Guthrie, Tom Paxton and Bruce Springsteen and Country Joe McDonald, Ani DiFranco and Beck and Steve Earle.

"I first read his autobiography, which is more of a novel than an accurate telling of what he did," Smith says. "It's a pretty fun book, but it doesn't read straight factual."

He has a tendency to talk like Guthrie these days. He's on stage for most of his two-hour play. He looks a bit more like Bob Dylan, though, than Guthrie. Guthrie had a hard-edged, barbed-wire look like a sharecropper in a Dorothea Lange photograph or a character out of John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. He wrote a song, "Tom Joad," celebrating Steinbeck's hero.

"Woody had a half-gallon jug of wine with him, sat down and started typing away," Seeger wrote in his book, The Incompleat Folksinger. "He would stand up every few seconds and test out a verse on his guitar and sit down and type some more. About one o'clock my friend and I got so sleepy we couldn't stay awake. In the morning we found Woody curled up on the floor under the table; the half gallon of wine was almost empty and the completed ballad was sitting near the typewriter.

"And it is one of his masterpieces," Seeger wrote. "It compresses the whole novel into about 20 verses."

Smith, who plays guitar, put a lot of Guthrie's music in his play.

"We're doing about 20 pieces of songs," he says. "We have banjo, mandolin, guitars, it's all acoustic. Woody actually wrote more than he was able to record himself. The Dust Bowl ballads are probably the best known. But there are scores of songs about everything from washing dishes to ... movie stars, or whatever he read that day in the paper."

Bursts of song

He interviewed Seeger for Guthrie: "He broke into song every two minutes ... I asked a question, he'd burst into song." Smith read the 1980 life by Joe Klein and Ed Cray's new biography, Ramblin' Man. He researched in the archives kept by Guthrie's daughter, Nora. (Guthrie was an unreliable husband and a sloppy father. He had about eight children, Smith says, some of whom succumbed to Huntington's.)

Seeger's a character in the play, acted by David Baston, 19, who also plays Jesus. Josef Stalin's in there, too, played by Kyle Riley, who went to high school with Smith in Frederick. Jesus and Stalin were pretty much the two poles of Guthrie's outlook on life.

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