I’ve seen actor Steven Weatherbee shine in a few goofy farces over the years. (His crisp work in “Boeing-Boeing” and “A Flea in Her Ear” come to mind.) But he also excels at more dramatic roles, such as his portrayal of Tom as “In A Glass Menagerie.” In Fresno City College’s “Waiting for Lefty,” a play brimming with social relevance, he helps explore a more serious issue: making a living wage.
The play, which opens Friday, Sept. 30, might be more than 80 years old, but it should come as no surprise that it’s timely. Labor issues and class-based economic strife are still very much on the agenda, unfortunately.
I caught up with Weatherbee, who recently transferred from Fresno City College to Fresno State as a theater major, for an insightful interview by phone and email.
Q: “Waiting for Lefty” is set in the 1930s as a New York City taxi strike is looming. Yet playwright Clifford Odets isn’t so much interested in the details of the strike as the way working people were hurting in the middle of the Depression. Can you give us a brief recap of the play without revealing too much?
A: The play opens in a union meeting venue, and continues on into a series of related vignettes. The entire play is framed by the meeting of cab drivers who are planning a labor strike, and eagerly wait for the arrival of their friend and leader, Lefty Costello, to turn the tide of the meeting in favor of the strike. The cab drivers sit across from a group of higher class individuals, who attempt to stifle and avoid the idea of a strike planting itself in the minds of the public in attendance at this meeting. Our stage framing uses the audience as part of the meeting in order to keep the discussed issues in the production on the very forefront of the audience’s minds.
Q: The play is known for being an “immersive audience experience.” Again, without revealing any surprises, what can you prepare us for? Should people worry about getting pulled up on stage?
A: Indeed, our play will be immersive in numerous ways, but more so in an inviting and riveting nature, rather than an in-your-face, “no apologies” type of demeanor. No one will be pulled up on the stage, but hey – I wouldn’t be surprised if audience members feel moved to do so themselves, after what they experience!
Q: Tell us about your character, Sid Phillips. What sort of financial and emotional pressures is he facing?
A: Sid is one of the taxi cab drivers in the play, as well as one of the committee members in the story. He is engaged to a young woman named Florrie, whose family (particularly her brother, Irv) are against Florrie pursuing marriage, due to the fact that she is likely to live a financially awful life with Sid and become dead weight to her family, who already struggles to scrape by. Taxi cab working conditions are dreadful – Florrie’s family knows it, and Sid knows they do, too. Sid will struggle between the decision of continuing their loving relationship, or doing what’s right for Florrie.
Q: Director Janine Christl is adding an interesting element to the play: period songs with live accompaniment. What is an example of one of the songs?
A: Indeed, our many melodies and songs have been rehearsed and polished with collaboration from Lorenzo Bassman, a Juilliard school graduate. The range of music involves a rich, union history piece entitled “Which Side Are You on”, and continues on with another period-style song entitled “Brother Can You Spare a Dime.”
Q: What do you think the music adds to the production?
A: The music adds a certain urgency in some scenes, and in others a gripping poignancy that matches the mood of others. I personally am in love with our musical moments – kudos to our director, Janine Christl Stein, for making these appropriate and powerful stage choices.
Q: How much of a political/economic message does the play have? Do you think it will make people who are adamantly anti-union uncomfortable?
A: Arguably, every scene in the play has a political and/or economic message to it. However, the more and more I dive into the words of the play and have the opportunity for them to be acted out in front of me at rehearsals, the sense of family and comrade-ry shine through. And if you happen to be “anti-union”, don’t worry – that voice makes clear and compelling arguments in the play as well.
Q: Had you given much thought to these kinds of working-class issues before starting this play? Has being in it changed you in any way?
A: Before wrapping myself up in this play, I’ve always had a bit of working-class sentiment and similar issues on my mind, having worked hard over the years to rise up from the circumstances I came from. But “Waiting for Lefty” has given me new insight upon these matters. And while for some it may seem common knowledge, learning a great deal more about the trying times of the 1930s has drawn shocking comparisons to the world we live in today.
Q: As coincidence would have it, Fresno State is also opening on the same day a play with a very strong social theme (about police violence within the black community). What kind of role do you think theater can take in terms of society coming to terms with serious issues?
A: Indeed, “Hands Up” at Fresno State will be performing roughly the same dates as our play does. I sincerely hope audiences will take the time to go and see both inspiring plays. And to answer your question – absolutely, yes! Dating back to the origins of theatre, the creative minds who come together to invite audiences into another world, presenting them a clear issue for which patrons of the arts can dissect and de-fragment a hot topic, and providing them a vantage point for which to explore a problem from outside the box I feel is the cornerstone of what makes the art of theatre so truly great.
Q: Tell us a little about your background. What have been some of your favorite roles? What do you want to do with a Fresno State theater degree?
A: Though I come from a foster care background, my immediate family and I have strong, loving, and understanding relationships still today. Life certainly is a journey, and as such, I began to study and pursue the art of theatre a few years ago upon returning to school. I recently have transferred to Fresno State University as a Junior classman, and will likely continue on after my Bachelor’s degree to pursue a MFA in theatre – I may want to teach the art one day. A couple of my favorite theatrical roles have been that of Bernard (“Boeing-Boeing,” Fresno City College) and Tom (“The Glass Menagerie,” Good Company Players).
Q: Anything else you’d like to say?
A: “Waiting for Lefty” is fast becoming one of my favorite plays, and in this rehearsal process I’ve gained much respect and admiration for the playwright, Clifford Odets. His writing is inspiring, and I hope you’ll all take the opportunity to come experience it live.
Waiting for Lefty
- Through Oct. 8
- Fresno City College Theatre
- www.fresnocitycollege.edu/boxofficetickets, 559-442-8221
- $14, $12 students and seniors