Cactus Theatre

at the Broadway Arts Center

The moment we enter a theater it’s us against them: the audience, strangers intent on effacing themselves in the dark, are literally opposed to the actors, extroverted creatures from the Dressing Room Beyond who play make-believe for high stakes. Most plays work to make us forget we’re “us.” But a few, mostly following in the footsteps of Brecht, want to break across the footlight barrier to forge a larger tribal or radical “us.” The results are often dismissed as agitprop. Still, if a play can make you feel–however temporarily–that you’re part of a new and better “us,” there’s always the hope you can make that sense of solidarity outlast the play.

Waiting for Lefty, Clifford Odets’s 1935 tour de force of unashamed propaganda, differs from Brecht’s “epic theater” by relying heavily on an audience’s ability to identify with its characters–oppressed cabdrivers agonizing over whether to risk a long, costly strike. (No strike fund is going to protect these guys from hard times, blacklisting, scabs, and lockout.) Like Brecht, Odets has lessons to pound home, but he’s too American not to want them to be instantly recognizable.

Interestingly, despite Lefty’s overall naturalism, Odets modeled the play on an old-fashioned minstrel show–with a turbulent chorus (cabbies and their loved ones), specialty men (the strike committeemen, who in separate vignettes demonstrate crucial moments in their lives that have brought them to this desperate step), and the abrasive Mr. Interlocutor (cigar-chomping Harry Fatt, supposedly a worker but really a stooge).

So does this proletarian protest play still pack a punch? A lot depends on environment. When the Steppenwolf ensemble produced Lefty at the Apollo Theater a few years ago, the surroundings were too plush, and the gap between a too-separate stage and a too-large house was more than the best actors could bridge. The “us” and the “them” never met.

It’s radically different with this power-packed, deeply felt offering by the 15-member Cactus Theatre. Like the classroom in Miss Margarida’s Way (the Igloo production just across the hall), the setting for Lefty, a dingy union hall (bare stage) with real burglar bars on windows facing an alley, is the real McCoy (except for the anachronisms of a “Boycott Japanese Products” poster–in 1935?–and the “Get Dillinger” flier; the thug was killed the year before). We’re in it with the workers. But, beyond setting, there’s the consistent commitment of everything about this riveting revival, a production worthy of the original Group Theatre effort.

As the meeting gathers steam, the union boys share with the audience their confusion over why their chairman, Lefty Costello, is late. Screaming above the hubbub, company rat Harry Fatt (in a snarling and infectiously hateful performance by Ken Cavett) yells how this is no time for a strike–with the president on their side and strikebreakers eager for their jobs.

Reacting to his taunts, the workers launch into six flashback/sermons that show how little choice they have. A lab assistant (Paul Swetland) refuses a bribe to serve as a company spy in a factory that’s making poison gas for the next war. A bedraggled sales clerk (Annette Hillman) and her hack boyfriend (Michael Shuler) finally admit that the “cards are stacked against us” and they’ve been “kept in the dark” long enough. Enraged to discover that the venal producer who turns him down for a part shows more compassion for his sick Russian wolfhound than for needy talent, a young, desperate-to-work actor (Bill Green) finds solace in the Communist Manifesto. Anti-Semitism, nepotism, and flagrant neglect of the poor force an idealistic German emigre doctor (Carrol James Symank) to quit the profession until socialized medicine makes it worth doing. (Boy, will he have a long wait!) And during the meeting a supposed witness to a failed strike in Philadelphia (Tom McCreary) is exposed as a blackleg spy–by his own brother (Bryan Burke).

Though the episodes explode right on cue, several sag from too much of the very Method pioneered by the Group Theatre. Throbbing pauses and a throaty, internalized delivery hint that director Robert Ellerman forgot that these moments were meant to be seen by an audience; played for soapy trauma, the stories can turn into melodrama.

But in the episode “Joe and Edna,” where this staging finds a happy blend, wonders happen. This terrific scene–reason enough to see the show–depicts the confrontation between a worn-out wife (Pamela Donahue) who’s sick of putting her kids (“little ghosts”) to bed early so they’ll forget they haven’t eaten and her cabbie husband (Billy Vear) who’s afraid to lose his six dollars a week for the sake of a strike. The unforced fury of their fight surges from well-targeted, awesomely authentic Chicago acting. Judging from what she brings to this stage, Donahue must have dug up every sorrow she ever endured and trebled the effect. Vear takes Joe’s rage, his unwillingness to admit Edna is right, and his terror that she’ll leave him, and makes them so human it hurts.

With the inevitability of a thundercloud, this 90-minute Lefty builds to the strike call, an unforgettable moment of incendiary theater. Like Godot, Lefty doesn’t show up; the reason why triggers a firestorm. Agate Keller (Robert Cooner), the electrifying final agitator, hurls out the challenge of “slow death or fight”: “We’re stormbirds of the working class . . . our bones and blood! And when we die they’ll know what we did to make a new world! Christ, cut us up to little pieces. We’ll die for what is right! Put fruit trees where our ashes are!” In 1987, when labor unions have never been more imperiled (sometimes from their own shortsightedness) and Reagan-loving, blue-collar sellouts have smugly forgotten the struggles of the 30s, this hit-the-barricades eloquence is still a hell of a challenge. Both theatrically and politically, Odets’s “them” is still “us.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.