When I think of Waiting for Lefty, Clifford Odets’ Depression-era classic, my first thought is a question: Was Samuel Beckett alluding to the title when he wrote Waiting for Godot? In both we have people waiting for a savior, a messiah. The theme is ancient, universal—and fervently alive in the current River Stage production.
Depending on your religious faith, or lack thereof, the theme is built into the human brain according to God, Darwin, Freud or Jung. It may even occupy a corner of an animal’s brain. An abandoned dog will await the return of its master.
In the late forties Beckett saw an absurd universe, where a pair of tramps struggled “to hold the terrible silence at bay.” And in Odet’s highly moral world, Lefty also in the end never comes. Instead it’s up to the impoverished and exploited workers of 1935 to liberate themselves, dependent on neither Lefty nor Franklin D. Roosevelt, whom many in the play nonetheless admire. Some workers embrace Communism but most despise it.
The action takes place in New York, focusing on a recent strike by taxi drivers, members of the Transit Workers Union. While raging against their exploitation by their employers, who oversupply cabs to a penny-pinching public, they also rage against each other. In Odet’s forthright style, the action begins and continues dramatically. There’s no real plot, but we view a succession of vignettes: families torn apart, racism, seductive offers by corrupt employers, battles between brothers.
Among many telling scenes is a painful confrontation between a husband and wife, Joe and Edna (Dan Featherston and Jessica Fairbairn), where she mocks him and stalks out because he can’t support his family. In another scene a young couple in love, Florrie and Sid (Andie Saenz and Spencer Tregilgas) are torn apart by her family because he can’t support her.
In still another, Miller (Johnathan Christian), a black man, resists a tempting offer from an employer (John Hopkins) to participate in experiments aimed at perfecting poison gas for the next world war. In still another, a patient dies because Dr. Barnes (Michael Beckett) dismisses his physician, Dr. Benjamin (Earl Victorine), who unfortunately happens to be a Jew.
The River Stage production eerily (if accidentally) foretold the recent Wall Street meltdown and provides a cautionary tale giving us a taste of what we might be in for next if we don’t act wisely. On the stage, bare except for chairs, we see a background screen with aged film clips from the era portrayed.
The background theme is the mournful 1931 “Brother Can You Spare a Dime?” (music by Jay Gorney, lyrics by Yip Harburg):
They used to tell me I was building a dream, and so I followed the mob,
When there was earth to plow, or guns to bear, I was always there right on the job.
They used to tell me I was building a dream, with peace and glory ahead,
Why should I be standing in line, just waiting for bread?
The song captures an essential difference between unionism then and now. Then unionism was a fight for dignity and equity, in a time when employers hired thugs to beat strikers and pickets. It was a period when the police shot and killed strikers, as on San Francisco’s “Bloody Thursday,” about a year before the play opened. Ironically, with organized labor’s ultimate victory, unions became part of the establishment. And for many of those old timers it had lost its heart, selling its soul for money and benefits.
But audience reactions during a discussion after the play, especially from older members, show that the old brave defiance is still alive and strong. It can emerge again if the current crisis deteriorates into another Great Depression.
Under Frank Condon’s firm and well-paced direction, an inspired cast deliver passionate and skilled portrayals in a production, though barely skirting the borders of melodrama, comes over as very real and very relevant to our own time, despite its seeming strangeness.
“Waiting for Lefty” is a must see for everyone who respects history and cares about the future of our civilization.
Performances run through October 26 on the Cosumnes River College campus, 8401 Center Parkway in Sacramento. “Waiting for Lefty” continues Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. Tickets are $18 general, $16 for students, seniors and Los Rios employees. Sunday performances are at 2 p.m., with all tickets $16. Call (916) 691-7364, and for more information go to http://www.riverstage.org/.