Friday, June 11, 2010

Can You Hear Their Voices?

Photo/Jim Baldassare

Early on, a bunch of farmers are listening to an address on farm-relief--not much else for them to do, what with the drought burning up their crops and killing their cows. It doesn't take long, though, for them to grow tired of this rich, ignorant man's speechifying so they switch off the radio. "Anyway," says one, "he's got a real nice voice." Of course, Hallie Flanagan and Margaret Ellen Clifford's play, Can You Hear Their Voices? isn't much beyond its own speeches: it's inspired by true events first written about by Whittaker Chambers, and was first performed at Vassar in 1931 as a theatrical call to action. The difference is that although Peculiar Works Project has admirable intents in reminding us of these events (lest they be repeated), this shambling production doesn't have a real nice voice. Save for a few actors, the performances feel halfhearted, the set changes and live music seem belabored, and the projected documentary footage comes closer to truth than what's on stage.

Yes, the show is agitprop--co-director Ralph Lewis (joined by Barry Rowell) admits as much when he introduces the show--but it doesn't have to be played so dryly--or so ambiguously, thanks to poor casting.  Ken Glickfeld doubles as an old, ignorant congressman and as a young boy: he plays both roles the same way. There's a wickedly satirical message in a lavish party scene that the congressman throws for his rebellious daughter, Harriet (a terrific Tonya Canada), but it's often distracted from on account of all the cross-dressing guests (a gender-blind approach that doesn't work, and the color-blind bits ache from lines like "That's mighty white of you"). Even the straightforward bits suffer: Hilda (Sarah Elizondo) tells her husband, Frank (Ben Kopit), that their child has died, and it's not even melodramatic -- instead, Kopit reacts like Bush after hearing of 9/11: he just rolls over and looks around blankly. The play is already broken into episodes (alternating between poor and rich); this monotonous pace kills what little momentum was left.

On paper, the script is relevant and often witty, and it's a shame the cast isn't energetic enough to deliver the punch of the damning exchanges ("I say damn the drought!" "I'll drink to that!") or sincere enough to steep the monologues in their oblivious sins ("While this depression affects us all, I feel that it would be selfish to retrench--the thing to do is to keep money in circulation"). Worse, when actors do show up, they tend to overreach, like Patricia Drozda, who reduces her rich bureaucratic character, Purcell, to such villainous smugness that it's hard to believe that Communist organizer Wardell (a solid Christopher Hurt) would be able to hold his men back. (Think of a gloating Madoff; you'd raise a gun to him, too.) Despite the plainspoken text, the truth tends to get muffled under such conditions. The play ends with Wardell's wife, Ann (Catherine Porter), asking the title's question: "Can you hear their voices?" The answer, sadly, is no.