American Dream Theater

Three just-opened productions show people who start jobs with nothing

It's up-by-the-bootstraps week for Tucson theater--not the companies themselves, but the subject matter. Just opened are three different nonfiction plays about people starting from nothing and trying to make a go of it in America. Judging from the quite-different productions at Arizona Theatre Company, Invisible Theatre and Borderlands Theater, the message is: Things ain't what they used to be.

We find a Russian immigrant working toward prosperity in 1909 Texas, and an African American in 1931 obtaining a seemingly menial job that nevertheless feeds off of and enhances the man's inherent human dignity. All well and good, but, according to the third production, if you're one of the working poor in contemporary America, you're screwed.

The Immigrant, which opened last weekend at Arizona Theatre Company, would be an excellent show--if it weren't a musical. In fact, that's how the play started out, and watching the musical version is like looking at one of those fine old brick buildings downtown, plastered over and given a poorly chosen coat of paint.

It's the standard tale of a Jewish immigrant who comes to America and has a little trouble assimilating, but through perseverance and hard work, he becomes an admirable success. What's new here is the setting: In 1909, young Haskell Harelik escapes from some oppressive Anatevka and heads straight for Galveston, Texas. Compared to Russia, it's a mostly safe place of open, rolling land, big sky--and absolutely no other Jews.

Haskell, with only a few English phrases punctuating his Yiddish, intrepidly drags a cart around small Texas towns selling bananas for a penny apiece. He's taken in, both grudgingly and generously, by town banker Milton Perry and his Baptist wife, Ima. They initially aren't sure what they've gotten into, but with their help, Haskell becomes a prosperous local merchant and brings over his timid wife, Leah.

The script, based on the experiences of the playwright's grandparents, initially paints the characters a bit too broadly in the interest of moving things along. But soon, the relationships deepen, Haskell becoming a surrogate son to the Perrys, but feeling that he will always have to feel grateful to the proudly self-made Milton. Leah is initially miserable, but forms a bond with Ima; the two deeply religious women find common ground, while realizing that certain core beliefs and practices of one will always remain alien to the other.

As the Hareliks, Aaron Serotsky and Ana Sferruzza handle their Yiddish lines as if to the manner born, and when they start speaking English, they nicely and gradually thin out their accents as the evening progresses. Serotsky adeptly conveys Haskell's assertive determination, as well as his shame for what he considers to be his cowardice--which the rest of us might regard as a sure sense of when to make a strategic retreat. Sferruzza is as assured at conveying Leah's initial fear and frustration as her later settled steadiness. Craig Spidle is a good, deadpan Milton, and Hollis Resnik finds all the toughness and decency within Ima.

Equally pleasing is Ralph Funicello's scenic design, complete with shifting clouds (perhaps the work of lighting designer Don Darnutzer) and changing phases of the moon to convey the passing of time.

The trouble here is the score by Steven M. Alper, ably played by a four-piece ensemble led by Lisa Laskowich. This generic music lacks distinctive melodies or even the tricks of rhythm or harmony that would make a song stick in the mind. (Alper also sends the two men into high-tessitura passages they can't quite handle, particularly Spidle.) Only Haskell's opening song, noting that one is never alone because God is there in the dark, becomes recognizable, and that's through sheer repetition. Interestingly, when Haskell sings it, the song sounds rather American, in the manner of Copland and Bernstein (both descendants of Jewish immigrants); it sounds a bit more Jewish when Leah sings it, and then like nothing in particular when it becomes an anthemic trio at the end.

The Immigrant is, in part, about the need to change. Change surrounds all of us, and in unexpected ways--in downtown Tucson and on the university campus, in a reversal of historical trends, parking lots are actually being replaced by interesting buildings. Someone should rip up the black asphalt expanse that passes for The Immigrant's score and rebuild in its place a solid play.

Quite a different story of arrival is playing at Invisible Theatre. Looking Over the President's Shoulder, by James Still, is the true story of Alonzo Fields, a White House butler during the Hoover, Roosevelt, Truman and early Eisenhower administrations. Although he had what most of us would consider a menial position, chief butler Fields had closer contact with the power players than any other African American of his time could dream of. Fields never, ever pretends to have affected the course of events, but he is proud of his role in helping others make history.

In this one-man show starring the endearing and indefatigable Walter Belcher, Fields tells of his early ambition to become a classically trained singer. His studies interrupted by the sudden death of a patron, Fields takes what he thinks will be a temporary job as a White House butler. The job paid only $91 a month--in 1931, that went about as far as $1,100 does today--but, as Fields points out, at the beginning of the Depression, there weren't many jobs for Negro opera singers.

Fields wound up staying until 1953, spending most of that time as chief butler. His personal politics seem liberal, but his account of his employers is nonpartisan. He had deep personal admiration for Herbert Hoover, and wasn't sure what to make of the social chaos that swept in with the Roosevelts. Although he respected the Roosevelts, especially Eleanor, he wasn't particularly comfortable around them. FDR was a Yankee, but he was also an aristocrat, and although Fields' job was to keep a low profile while always being available, he often felt blatantly ignored. Fields was far more at ease around his outspoken fellow Midwesterner Harry Truman. He has little to say about Eisenhower, whose arrival gave him an excuse to quit and spend more time with his chronically ailing wife.

Directed by Susan Claassen, Belcher plays Fields with a fine balance of humility and self-respect; there's nothing at all boastful in his stories about his encounters with presidents, prime ministers and movie stars, yet he's proud of his small role at the edge of the action. Belcher also suggests most subtly Fields' longing and disappointment every time he talks about music.

Belcher keeps moving most of the time, doing a split-second tap dance when he mentions a visit from Shirley Temple, ducking behind a pillar when describing how the staff was expected to keep out of Mrs. Hoover's sight as she passed by. Yet none of this seems contrived or stagey, thanks largely to Belcher's simple honesty as an actor.

He's a fine singer, too, and gets to prove it in a couple of snippets. He doesn't get the lyrics to Bizet's "Toreador Song" quite right--he sings French words, but not all the right words--but let's give him credit for being true to character; after nearly 25 years, Fields probably wouldn't have been exact, either.

It's a fairly bare-bones production, but Michael Keck's sound design adds immeasurably to the theatrical texture. A pigeon seeming to fly overhead, a clink when Belcher mimes tossing a horseshoe, an offstage band--the sound becomes an unobtrusive yet essential supporting character, like Alonzo Fields serving dinner at the White House.

If Alonzo Fields were a young music student today having to work his way through school, he'd quite likely be toiling at less-exalted tables. Indeed, there's a fair chance he'd be among America's 32 million working poor, knocking themselves out on two or more low-paying jobs, barely covering expenses, never able to scratch together the savings that would help lift them into the middle class. Those wrung-out blue-collar workers are the real stars of Joan Holden's Nickel and Dimed, which Borderlands Theater opened last weekend.

Holden based her play on the nonfiction book of the same title by social critic Barbara Ehrenreich, who in 1998, decided to find out what it was like to live like so many underclass Americans: Move to a new town, try to start fresh with minimal skills, try to survive as a waitress, a maid, a department-store drone.

In the play, Molly McKasson (an occasional Weekly contributor) plays Barbara, a 55-year-old power-to-the-people writer with hard-core unionist leanings. Casting about for a topic that will appeal both to her liberal conscience and a paying magazine editor, she hits on the idea of settling briefly in Florida, Maine and Minneapolis, presenting herself as a divorcee with no advanced skills, and seeing what happens. Her head is already full of facts and statistics, and her initial approach is intellectual: to "speculate on what makes humans devour their own kind"--why business owners pay low wages and few if any health benefits for grueling work, and why workers put up with it.

Before long, it's more than Barbara's brain that gets involved; she develops an itchy rash from the chemicals she uses working for a cleaning service; her Reebok-clad feet rebel at the extra-long shifts (including mandatory hours worked without pay) at a Wal-Mart-like store; and her heart goes out to her fellow workers, whose lives are much more complicated than she anticipates. And they just can't climb from their barely subsistence level; as Barbara discovers, "The less you make, the more everything costs you."

The Barbara we see on stage, brought to life by McKasson, balances her outrage with a sense of irony and intermittent flashes of self-awareness. Still, she sometimes comes off like a privileged crusader determined to correct the injustices inflicted on the "little people," without realizing the potentially ruinous consequences of demanding better working conditions from a recalcitrant boss, or quitting mid-shift in high dudgeon.

McKasson is onstage through the entire, long show, and manages to keep up the momentum while making us care about a character struggling to make her principles mesh with reality. Substantial support comes from five other actors portraying a multitude of subsidiary characters. Best among them are Dwayne Palmer playing, among other things, a hapless Czech busboy and a Minnesota "Mall-Mart" assistant manager who presents an alarmingly persuasive argument for keeping wages low, and Linda Andresano as an officious waitress who has a knack for surviving, barely.

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