Waiting For Lefty brings a new activist theatre company to town

After losing so many in the pandemic, we can welcome another theatre company to Chicago’s landscape.

Gwydion Theatre Company, according to its artistic directors Grayson Kennedy and Tommy Thams, is a group whose goal is to “produce subversive and politically charged theatre.” To that end, they have chosen as the first play of their inaugural season here (after forming in Los Angeles) Clifford Odets’ 1935 union classic Waiting for Lefty, a play that directly takes on income inequality, uncaring bosses, and underhanded union-busting tactics. Watching it is a kind of time travel—the play is set in the early years of FDR’s first administration—but the frustration and anger these workers and their wives feel with the status quo could be ripped directly from today. At a moment when the greed of big corporations is artificially keeping prices high despite the efforts of our current administration, it’s sadly easy to understand those emotions, and Gwydion’s production holds them in the spotlight.

Directed by Kennedy, who also designed the minimalist set, Lefty takes us to a New York union hall full of disgruntled taxi workers. After they enter a vista in groups of two or three, we find ourselves in the middle of a meeting. Fatt (Rick Yaconis) is desperately trying to keep control as many members are calling for a strike; he is trying to get them to see that, with a new Democrat in the White House, this is not the best time for such an action. The room, however, is all in a dither: everyone is talking over each other and no one is in the mood to listen to what Fatt has to say.

Moments later, Odets begins to show us the reasons for this in what becomes a series of breakout scenes illustrating the individual reasons these people are frustrated. Kennedy, who carefully sets the meeting facing the upstage dais so we get the members’ perspective, places these close-up moments in the middle of the stage, where there are no furnishings. The first couple we meet leans into that: Joe (Andrew Shipman) and Edna (Maddie Hillock), have just had all of their furniture repossessed; times are very tough for taxi drivers. From the moment we meet Edna—smoking on the floor of a darkened living room—it is clear that she is angry, both at the union for not striking and at Joe personally because he is not bringing home enough to feed their family. (She tells him to be careful not to awaken the children because she put them to bed early so they would not realize they had missed a meal.) He tries to make the same lame excuses Fatt was making at the meeting, but it’s no use: Edna claims that she is ready to leave him for an old flame if he doesn’t stand up for himself.

Shipman and Hillock are on fire in this section, and their argument (which is far longer than the part of the meeting we saw, a pattern that holds true throughout the play) lets them each verbally assail the other, but both actors hold enough in reserve to allow us to understand that it is their frustration speaking and that these two actually still love each other. When we return to the meeting, Joe is at the podium just finishing a speech which he concludes with “We gotta walk out!” so it’s clear that his wife’s energy has now transferred to him.

The tough times are also affecting a younger couple, Sid (Bobby Dixon) and Florrie (Ellory Jezuit). Florrie’s brother Irv (Caleb Petre), her self-appointed guardian, argues with her that times being what they are she can’t set her hopes on Sid, who can’t seem to jumpstart his career as a taxi driver. Florrie and Sid, though, have been engaged for three years waiting for some money to start coming in so they can marry; sadly, their love coincided with the beginning of the Depression, which shows no sign of ending, and Sid has made up his mind to let her go for her own sake. Dixon and Jezuit, in another lengthy scene, go through many similar beats to what we saw from Shipman and Hillock. All four actors are extremely strong, though their plots run in diametrically opposite directions—whereas Hillock’s frustrated anger is so overwhelming as to win her argument, Jezuit’s deeply felt young love, well performed in moments both serious and comic, isn’t enough to hold things together: we see the depth of love in all of them, but starting out in this economy is simply too hard.

Kennedy’s directorial style allows the actors to give in to extremes of emotion, even speaking over each other, and the couples scenes hold nothing back while unseen union members watch from the “hall”; at times, he will give them free rein to throw ad-libs into the energy of the moment we are seeing. Whether they do or not, though, they are always intently watching. These men know why a strike is needed: each has a story like these to tell. Though it is clear that a strike could fail, they have to try.

Other scenes illustrate the lack of caring from the owner class: A hospital decides to close an entire wing and cut staff not for medical reasons but for economic ones, apparently not worrying about the impact this will have on patients and employees. (We even hear about one poverty-line patient who dies during a fairly routine surgery because the Powers That Be won’t shell out the money to keep their best surgeon, allowing a third-rate—but far cheaper—hack to do it instead.)

We also see owner class decisions that are morally dubious for non-economic reasons: a highly regarded young worker refuses to take a promotion that, though it involves a raise, would have him spying on an esteemed doctor he’d be working with…and making poison gas. He quits instead, joining the men at the union hall who are demanding more from their bosses. As for his own boss, he boils down the opinion of his class perfectly: ignoring all humanitarian arguments, he tells the young man that “if big business went sentimental over human life there wouldn’t be big business of any sort.”

Is it any wonder that Odets’—and through him our—sentiments are on the workers’ side of things?

For the most part, this is a very well-directed show, the breakout scenes showing the depth that Kennedy can get out of the actors individually and the barely-controlled union hall scenes starkly revealing them as a unit. He does, however, give in too often to an urge to bring an actor to the center in order to speak to the audience presentationally…even in those very personal scenes when we should be eavesdropping on powerful emotional moments.

(I confess that this is a pet peeve of mine: it’s OK (if not done to extreme) in a musical or a play that isn’t striving for realism and immediacy, but Lefty is. These are real people with real problems that are not within their control, and the speechifying always pulls us out of the intimacy of the moment. A long, expressionistic speech by Dixon’s Sid works because he too is being pulled from the moment into his discontented and embittered memory. Other presentational moments feel artificial, though. Perhaps Kennedy the director needed to have a word with Kennedy the set designer: realism in blocking usually depends on having various places for characters to stand, move, and sit, and the area assigned to the couples seems to focus too literally on one of Sid’s lines, “You and me—we never even had a room to sit in somewhere.”)

In the end, of course, there is going to be a strike. With the union leadership, possibly under the thumb of the bosses, opposing it, a worker played by Jimmy Piraino takes it upon himself to galvanize these men with their own individual management problems into a single unified force. Piraino, speaking directly to the audience in a perfect example of when this technique should be used, leads that force with power and fiery words. It doesn’t really matter that Odets’ titular Lefty, a watched-for organizer who is actually a macguffin, isn’t there. These men need to find the strength in themselves, and they do.

Kennedy’s troupe found their own strength here, presenting a powerful, almost 90-year-old play that will (sadly) resonate with today’s audiences as much as it did in 1935. It doesn’t take much imagination to believe that it is 1935, given the set choices, the lighting by Sam Bessler, and the period-appropriate costumes by Ellie Thompson and Caleb Petre. Of course, powerful emotional arguments control us today, too, as we can see in any news story. Let’s hope that we don’t need a mythical Lefty to pull us through them.

Waiting for Lefty is playing through Feb 24 at The Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N Lincoln Avenue Chicago. Performance times vary. You can find more information about current plays on our Current Shows page and at theatreinchicago.com.

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