Blocks from the Horton Grand Theatre, home of Intrepid Theatre’s production of Woody Guthrie’s American Song, police in riot gear formed a blockade outside another Donald Trump rally. Protesters burned Trump hats. Supporters hurled insults and trash from hotel balconies.
As the angry chorus grew outside the theater, the ensemble took the stage and uttered a “Storm of Words” over one another. A guitar with the message “this machine kills fascists” sat in the background. Panels with a map of the heartland set the stage. Unrest, onstage and off, set the tone.
Born in Oklahoma in 1912, Guthrie’s backstory unravels in the first act. Left to fend for his family as a teenager while his father worked off debts, young Guthrie (Jack French) struggled to overcome fate. The Dust Bowl stripped the land of its crop and the farmer of his hope.
Peter Glazer underscores chronology with Guthrie’s music for thematic development. “Oklahoma Hills,” “Dust Bowl Disaster, and “So Long, it’s Been Good to Know Ya,” create precedent for the “Hard Travelin’” ahead. The migrants who “...ain't got no Home in this World Anymore,” hop a train “Bound for Glory,” only to find every “Dust Bowl Refugee” unwelcome at the California state line.
Three actors portray Guthrie in different phases of life. Each passes guitar and hat to the next, marking the passage of time — a helpful piece of blocking by director Ruff Yeager — and each narrates the early action of the new era. Subtle transitions clarify who’s who in a show every actor plays multiple roles.
Black and white, man and woman — the five-piece ensemble morphs into a composite of downtrodden Americans — literally, at times. Two women (Karen Ann Daniels and Megan M. Storti) mirror a projected photo of a Dust Bowl refugee resting in a doorway, miming her stance while the men sing. Each character is a piece of the other in a play where all characters create a piece of the American fabric.
After striking out in California, mid-life Guthrie (Sean Yael-Cox) busks through “New York Town.” New(ish) coats and colorful dresses replace the sweat-drenched costumes of harder times. Comical bits between musicians competing for tips add brevity. A bluesy rendition of “Hard, Ain’t it Hard” spices up the original with sex appeal.
These playful moments save the script from one-dimensionality. Legacy upstages the man for much of the play. Guthrie's wives and children — even his own death —are footnotes in the fight for the “Union Maid,” the “Deportee” Mexican migrants killed in a plane crash, and sailors during “The Sinking of the Reuben James.”
When older Guthrie (Leonard Patton) sings “Another Man Done Gone,” the clash between man and legend climaxes. While images of a dying Guthrie flash in the background, his message survives through the “word singer” onstage.
Ending with an audience singalong of “This Land is Your Land” respects Guthrie’s life, his message, and a present-day chorus who knows every word, but forgets “...ain't much difference between you and us.”
Playing through June 19