Left Of Center...

At this point, I don't think there's anyone in America whose life hasn't been touched by the Great Recession in some way. Even if you haven't lost a job, had trouble finding one in the first place after graduating college, started economizing to a new extent, clipped coupons, or lost value in your house, it's a good bet you know someone who has. Unless you're a billionaire (in which case you're probably worried that the current wave of anti-corporate greed sentiment will touch you in some way), it's safe to say that times are hard all over.

Of course, this isn't the first time Americans have faced economic turmoil. The Great Depression may be 80 years in the past, but it remains our cultural touchstone for understanding abject poverty. The novels of John Steinbeck and the photography of Dorothea Lange may be the defining cultural artifacts of the era, but a wealth of materials were produced at the time that are becoming newly relevant in today's precarious economic climate. 

To that end, I was attracted to a new production of Clifford Odet's classic one-act play, Waiting for Lefty at the Victory Gardens Biography Theater on the city's north side. Written in 1935, Waiting for Lefty presents a series of vignettes about the crushing effects of corporate greed on average workers, framed by the action of a union meeting in which a group of cab drivers is deciding whether to strike in hopes of securing higher wages. Though the play's heavy-handed socialist message seems a little dated today, what could be more timely (especially in light of the burgeoning occupation of Wall Street that started earlier this week) than a denouncement of income disparity and the perils of capitalism run amok?

I was genuinely surprised by the quality of the American Blues Theater's production. Given that we were able to get tickets for about $12, and the fact that it was housed in the theater's studio space, I was expecting a fairly minimalist staging. However, the cast was surprisingly large (bigger, I think, than some of the shows I've seen in the big-name downtown theaters of late); their costumes, while slightly lacking in authenticity (I don't think working women had the luxury of owning enough pairs of shoes at the height of the Great Depression to own pairs of peep-toe sandals that would have let in show and rainwater on inclement days) didn't look like rented; and the space itself was surprisingly large, spacious, and well-appointed.

Despite the high production values, I found myself wondering at the end of the performance if I had actually enjoyed it. I found the dialogue exceedingly difficult to follow; the actors were speaking much too fast, and if the play had been written today instead of 1935, I would have said that the playwright was trying too hard to cram it full of period jargon to increase its populist appeal. Given that many of those slang expressions have fallen from usage in the intervening years, it was difficult to follow what the actors were saying. Plus, I'm not entirely convinced the actors themselves comprehended the meaning behind their dialogue, as it seemed to me that they were often giving emotional emphasis to the wrong parts of sentences.

I was also distracted by the company's use of blind casting to create a better gender balance for their production. A scene in which a high-ranking chemist at a large research facility quits her job instead of agreeing to her boss's demand that she spy on her coworkers was particularly jarring. I'm pretty sure that there were very few lady chemists in 1935, and those that existed probably weren't being offered lucrative raises. Ditto for another scene that featured a female physician who was supposed to be the head of a hospital's charity ward, who was being let go because she was Jewish. Supposedly, this character went to Harvard, where, in reality, the first female graduates matriculated from the medical school in 1949. I'm sure the company just didn't want all the choice roles to go to their male members, but for me, their casting decision shattered the illusion of historical accuracy.

Though I was ambivalent about the production as a whole, there was one vignette that I found particularly moving: in it, a young woman and her lover contemplate the fact that their economic circumstances will prevent them from marrying and raising a family. Ultimately, despite their love for each other, they decide to part ways since they cannot be together in the way they desire. More so than the other stories, I found their tale of dreams deferred and thwarted romance to be the most resonant for our time. It was less a socialist call to arms, and more a indictment of the economy's destruction of even the most basic tenets of the American Dream.

The American Dream is just as threatened today as it was in the 1930s, and I wish there were a solution as readily apparent as a strike for better wages. Politicians seem more interested today in being reelected than bringing about any relevant change, and more vested in protecting the interests of their corporate campaign donors than their constituents. Grass roots activism from the right has brought us nothing but the idiocy of the Tea Party movement. Will the left get its act together and provide a viable alternative? Only time will tell, but for now, I can only hope...

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