Labor unrest in a Depression-era drama at Quintessence

by Hugh Hunter
Posted 1/26/23

At Quintessence Theatre, you take a trip back in time to the Great Depression with their revival of "Waiting For Lefty" (1935) by Clifford Odets.

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Labor unrest in a Depression-era drama at Quintessence


At Quintessence Theatre, you take a trip back in time to the Great Depression with their revival of "Waiting For Lefty" (1935) by Clifford Odets. Passions flare as taxicab drivers discuss whether to go on strike while they await the arrival of union leader, Lefty Costello. 

Cigar-chomping chairman Fatt (Buzz Roddy) says no. Wait for Roosevelt's reforms to kick in, he argues. But Fatt has to let the clamorous opposition have their say.  "Lefty" is a fast-paced, one hour series of vignettes as delegates tell their stories. 

Under director Kyle Haden, Elizabeth M. Stewart uses dramatic lighting to shift into vignette sequences. The first is a domestic argument between Joe (Doug Harris) and his wife Edna (Angelica Santiago). They live in a squalid tenement. Their furniture has been taken away, their children go without and Edna threatens to run off with an old boyfriend. 

This impels Joe to man-up for the strike. More vignettes follow, some domestic in nature; others touch upon broad social-political issues. Yet all share a common theme: the working man is abused by a brutal governing class.

Long before Brecht's "alienation effect," Odets' play was an experiment in "breaking the fourth wall."  The Quintessence production is striking. At the start, Gunman (Lee Thomas Cortopassi) explains "We are waiting for Lefty - feel free to talk among yourselves." Is Gunman talking to fellow union reps or to us?

The ambivalence continues all night. In the dim lights, you are not sure if audible reactions to vignettes are coming from the stage or audience. In the closing oration, Agate (Monroe Barrick) makes no distinction between actors and audience in exhorting workers to strike. He speaks to us all as one. 

But not before we hear desperate tales. Sid (Daniel Melo) and Florrie (Katherine Perry) tell another story of domestic strife. Sid knows he is "rat poison" to Florrie's family because his taxicab job does not yield a livable wage. Money means more than love and character.

Other vignettes are broadly political. Miller (Kimie Muroya) fights with crass industrialist Fayette (Rachel Brodeur) over the manufacture of poison gas for war.  Dr. Benjamin (Michael Liebhauser) loses his job as physician in a "charity ward" to the nephew of a senator because he is Jewish. 

At times "Lefty" gets hammy. In the same vignette, Dr. Benjamin also learns his pregnant woman patient dies from incompetent care, and that the charity ward itself will be shut down because it is not profitable. (Oh my, Clifford Odets, you do go on.)

Quotes from Marx's “The Communist Manifesto” were later dropped from the play. Odets flirted with communism in 1934-35, and "Lefty" owes a lot to 1930s agitprop.  At Quintessence, judging by the audience's florid hooray to Agate's finale oration, the show is also top-shelf agitprop. (Let's hit the streets! Hey Bertolt Brecht, can you top that!) 

Classic drama is timeless because of its high metaphor. "Antigone" does not need creative, modern add-ons to make it "relevant." Other plays feel dated, limited to the time and place of birth. "Waiting For Lefty" falls somewhere in the middle. 

Clifford Odets was the first of the Depression-era playwrights, whose artistry reached a summit in the early work of Arthur Miller. While all refer back to the Depression experience, they also have timeless themes. Their revivals are relevant today, because for the last 60 years American theater has lost the ability to discuss class conflict. 

Quintessence Theatre is located at 7137 Germantown Ave. "Waiting For Lefty" will run through Feb 12. Tickets are available at quintessence