Three days before American Blues Theater opened its new Chicago production of "Waiting for Lefty," that classic Clifford Odets drama of the fervent years, Teamsters president James Hoffa Jr. warmed up a Detroit Labor Day crowd for President Barack Obama. Making reference to a "war on workers," an army "ready to march" and the need to take out the opposition, Hoffa's words were widely interpreted on the left as a long overdue ignition of justified, blue-collar anger. On the right, they were widely denounced as an ugly threat.
Either way, they were a reminder that economic crises invariably produce incendiary, polarizing rhetoric.
Odets knew his way around incendiary rhetoric. First performed by the Group Theatre in 1935, back when theater more closely mirrored the rhetoric of the precise moment, "Waiting for Lefty" was nominally based on events surrounding the New York City Taxi Strike of 1934. But it was really Odets' railing against how the self-absorbed "boss class" was worsening and manipulating the Great Depression to the detriment, as the impoverished character Joe puts it, of "the black and blue boys."
There are plenty of bruised working (or not working) folks in Chicago in 2011. But as I watched Kimberly Senior's enveloping, powerfully acted and emotional production Saturday afternoon — it features a whopping cast of about 25 actors, 10 of whom remain, unspeaking, in the shadows of the meeting — I kept thinking about Odets and Hoffa and how the enemies they referenced have changed. I suspect when they picked this title, Senior and American Blues were interested in pursuing parallels between two moments of American economic duress. At the Richard Christiansen Theatre, though, "Waiting for Lefty" feels more of a reminder of how much America has changed. And that makes it all the more worth seeing.
In the seven, stacked-deck vignettes in this hourlong play, which was never the model of dramatic sophistication, Odets personifies the enemy as the fat-cat owners of taxi cabs, rich Broadway producers and powerful hospital board members. Hoffa, though, was talking not about fat cats, but about the politicians affiliated with the tea party movement, which is by no means driven by the ruling capitalist class. Indeed, many of its most fervent supporters come from the very rank-and-file workers on whose crises Odets wanted to put the spotlight.
So how did that sea change come to pass? If you keep the question in your head as you watch this production, you might find that it makes a one-dimensional piece of writing seem much more complex. Odets may not have anticipated the current moment. But "Waiting for Lefty" surely now makes you aware of how much the American conversation has shifted, even if the pain of its workers has not.
There are some obvious reasons for these changes. Odet's idealist Dr. Benjamin (movingly played by Cheryl Graeff) dreams of working in Soviet socialized medicine. A compassionate secretary (warmly played by Suzanne Petri) speaks fondly of "The Communist Manifesto." None of that worked out so well. But it's not all that obvious. Odets saw the worker as an emaciated white man — another way America has changed. Senior has changed the casting in some of those roles — such as putting the fascinating Mechelle Moe in the role of Miller, the scientist asked to make morally unacceptable compromises.
And although she wisely respects the play's integrity, Senior also subtly evokes the shadows of American workers' past. Sitting in the half-light — their feelings unknown — her unspeaking witnesses offer a compelling counterpoint to the familiar tales of wronged workers who occupy the front of the stage.
You invariably will the performers to go further and deeper into the bottomless, in-the-moment pain and crisis that Odets wanted to show. But from Derek Gaspar's sad-eyed Joe to Gwendolyn Whiteside's progressively wilting Florrie, there are some formidable performances.
All in all, it's a most interesting hour. Perhaps American Blues wanted us to feel the passion of "Strike! Strike! Strike!" Actually, you're left more with a refreshed sense of the unlikeliness of such a cry coming today.
"Waiting for Lefty" is feeling more and more like the work of ghosts, who haunt us still.
When: Through Oct. 2
Where: Richard Christiansen Theatre, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave.
Running time: 1 hour, 5 minutes
Tickets: $25 at 773-871-3000 or americanbluestheater.com