I’ve never before been handed a political button when entering a theater.
But such is the immersive experience of Fresno City College’s forceful and intriguing “Waiting for Lefty,” a 1930s-era blast from the past experience of socially aware theater that remains all too relevant today.
Playwright Clifford Odets loosely based the play on a famous 1934 New York City taxi strike. One interesting thing is the way he structured it. He sets the action in a union meeting hall and bookends the play with a conflict between drivers who want to go on strike and fat-cat union leaders who don’t want to rock the boat.
Between these vivid moments we see several flashback vignettes that offer back stories of some of the cab drivers. In one, a promising lab assistant (a sympathetic Quincy Maxwell) is offered a raise and promotion if he agrees to work on a project involving poison gas. In another, a smitten taxi driver (Steven Weatherbee) knows he can’t afford to get married, and his fiancee (Ruby Arreguin) despairs.
Director Janine Christl’s compelling staging, which includes members of the ensemble scattered through the audience, drew me into the action.
Odets’ structure can feel a little clunky and pedantic at times, and the dramatic through-line of the play – the idea that everyone at the meeting is waiting for the arrival of the “Lefty” of the title, the union chairman – can get lost. But the format grew on me.
Director Janine Christl’s compelling staging, which includes members of the ensemble scattered through the audience, drew me into the action. Sitting a few rows ahead of me at the Thursday performance I attended was an ensemble member dressed in period clothing (Debra Erven’s costume design is wonderful), complete with hat. She didn’t have any lines, but I kept glancing at her, watching her react to the pro-union sentiments being espoused by the cabbies on stage, vigorously applauding with two white-gloved hands, and it added immensely to the “surround-sound” theatrical experience.
The cast is large and fiery. I like the combination of experienced community theater actors (Michael Peterson as the cutthroat lab boss, Jay Parks as the union strongman, Luis Ramentas as a hospital administrator forced to lay off a talented Jewish physician) and impassioned students.
Among the standouts: Weatherbee and Arreguin bring bleakness and chemistry to their roles as engaged couple. James Schott gives a vivid performance as the Jewish doctor, who is let go because of his religion when a charity ward is shut down. James Anderson and Megan Dewitt highlight the depth of poverty, even for a family with a gainfully employed head of household. Josh Hansen and Dylan Hardcastle make sparks fly as union-hall combatants.
And Joshua Taber is fierce and vehement as one of the loudest proponents of the strike.
The addition of a live musical ensemble and period-authentic songs – “Which Side Are You On?” is one – also ratchets up the authenticity factor.
Most important, the play still resonates is because issues of the 1930s still feel cutting-edge today. As Peterson’s character says at one point, “If big business went sentimental about human life, there wouldn’t be big business of any sort.”
Granted, there is a greater safety social safety net in place today, partly a holdover from the Great Depression itself, and unions made great strides in the ensuing decades in terms of boosting the chance that Americans could earn a living wage. The strides were great but easily forgotten, and our society has tended to turn against unions recently. We forget that workers’ rights can easily be taken away.
In a larger sense, we’re seeing the impact of a renewed populist zeal in this country as the gap between rich and poor gets wider. “Waiting for Lefty” reminds us that anger is a motivating force that none of us can afford to ignore.
Waiting for Lefty
- Through Oct. 8
- Fresno City College Theatre
- www.fresnocitycollege.edu/boxofficetickets, 559-442-8221
- $14, $12 students and seniors