If you know anybody out there who harbors skepticism about the power of words and music to please, to help interpret the most brutal of life's blows, and to draw folks together by exploding the illusion of our differences, kindly escort them to the Temple of Music and Art, where Arizona Theatre Company has mounted an irresistible production of Woody Guthrie's American Song.
You will experience a spunky distillation of the spirit, the simple eloquence and the good-natured energy of Guthrie. He pumped out thousands of songs and prolific prose, creations which document a painful swath of American history and tell the stories of human beings victimized by the inexplicable cruelties of nature and societal relationships.
And it all comes together in an artfully conceived and executed production.
You're probably not familiar with multitudes of Guthrie's songs, but you're bound to have sung along with many, even without knowing their origin: "Ain't Gonna Be Treated This Way," "The Sinking of the Reuben James," "Worried Man" and "This Land Is Your Land."
It's the songs that star in ATC's production. While there is incidental biography, history and social commentary, there is no real editorializing, nor does the script try to do too much, thanks to the wise restraint of author Peter Glazer. Rather, he has discovered a dramatically effective way of simply letting Guthrie's words and songs speak for themselves. There is no attempt to dramatize Guthrie's story, the results of which could easily feel contrived and false. Instead, given a sense of structure by chronology, the piece flows like a river, due to the powerful weight of its own substance—and little help from meddling outside sources.
Woodrow Wilson Guthrie was born in 1912 in Oklahoma. Because his family was poor and possibilities were hard to imagine, he struck out on his own while a teenager. He worked odd jobs, was a migrant farm worker and seemed to have had a knack for being in the right time and place as both a witness to and participant in some of the most unusual moments of American history. The Great Depression? He was there. The oil boom—and bust—in Oklahoma? There he was. And he was there when the catastrophic Dust Bowl resulted in the migration of thousands of families westward to what seemed like the source of the American Dream—but which offered far, far less than expected. He spent time in New York City, was a Merchant Marine and in the Army during World War II, became a union activist, and married three times. And wherever he was, he wrote songs about whatever he saw.
Those songs are what we experience in ATC's production. Sure, there is the convention of "scenes" to put Guthrie and his songs into a relatable context, but that artifice is always rooted in the stories he's writing. They are a backdrop, not a driving force.
Of course, this songfest wouldn't work so well if a skilled and committed cast couldn't deliver Guthrie's gems, but ATC's team admirably executes this task. Actually, the use of the ensemble of actors is rather unusual and clever: The three men and two women each portray Guthrie, to varying degrees. There is no one Woody, although the men share most of the load of his embodiment, each taking the lead at different stages of Guthrie's life. Sometimes they are all Woody at the same time, which is not as confusing as it may sound. The women channel his words and thoughts just as clearly as the men. It's an inventive device which works dramatically, even as it underscores a critical theme about his songs that Guthrie made very clear: His songs, he said, do not belong to him. He has borrowed stories from others and turned them into song. When he sings these songs, those from whom he has borrowed simply repossess themselves and their experiences.
Jason Edwards, Sally Mayes, Kenita R. Miller, Ryan Nearhoff and Jim Newman, along with a first-class band featuring Mark Baczynski, David P. Jackson and David Miles Keenan, create as solid of a union as this challenging piece needs. Best of all is that the cast, directed by Randal Myler, genuinely seems to have welcomed Guthrie into their hearts, and in turn, they open their hearts to send him to us. Though never cloying or sentimental, the performance feels like an act of love—for Guthrie and for us.
Vicki Smith's beautifully designed set provides the perfect backdrop for Guthrie and his songs, suggesting the expanse of Guthrie's American landscape and the details of a rough life. There actually might be a few too many of these details, but as with the script itself, restraint seems to guide the collective effort of the designers. Get out of the way, and let the songs do their thing.
Vital to the visual power of the production are the two huge screens on which Jeffrey Cady has designed the projection of hundreds of black-and-white photographic images of the people, places and events about which Guthrie sang. If the set design consisted of only these images, the visual impact would still be profound and penetrating.
This is more than a feel-good holiday show, but there is evident a true generosity of spirit, established by Guthrie and delivered joyously by the company.
This land is made for you and me.