Street Corner Arts has provided Central Texas theater-goers with a rare opportunity to see a production of Waiting for Lefty, the 1935 play by Clifford Odets inspired by a taxi strike in New York City in 1934. It is a play reflecting the challenging and turbulent social and political climate of the time and one that really brought Odets to public attention for the first time.
Director Benjamin Summers has taken an excellent ensemble cast and crafted a smartly paced, energetic, and taut production. The play starts off with an acrimonious meeting of taxicab drivers with their union leader at the union hall. Summers actually places some of the actors in the audience to create the illusion we — spectators as well as the actors — are all involved in the meeting and the events that follow.
The play flashes back to a sequence of vignettes that explain how some of the drivers have become motivated to challenge their union leadership and go out on strike. Each vignette continues without pause, and the actors act as their own stage hands moving props and furniture, as necessary. Indeed, one is reminded of a Elizabethan play as the scenes unfold on the bare bones stage of the Hyde Park Theatre.
At the end of the play, one of the drivers — Agate, played here by the physically imposing Travis Dean — comes forward to unite the drivers and, despite attempts by the leadership to suppress his efforts, gets them to agree to go on strike. It is a powerful monologue, and Dean delivers it most effectively, with all the strength and energy it demands.
Each member of the cast of 16 makes his or her contribution to the overall success of the production. Claire Grasso, as Florrie, and David Scott, as her boyfriend, Sid, deliver a touching scene as they share their frustration and sense of helplessness at their situation. Hildreth England, as the stenographer who tries to help the out-of-work actor (David Higgins), is particularly effective in her part. Zac Thomas and Molly Fonseca, as Joe and Edna, battle over what Joe can and should do to help his family.
Especial mention must be made of Michael Stuart, who serves in three roles as Fatt, the union leader; Fayette, the industrialist; and Grady, the theater producer who is the stenographer’s boss. Although it is clear Stuart is playing these roles, he brings nuance and individually to each of them and is believable in all.
Monica Gibson deserves kudos for the effective costuming. Her efforts greatly enhanced the 1930s atmosphere of the production.
The dialogue of the play is clearly dated. The “Red Scare” of the 1930s is long gone. But the emotions and feelings of “the little guy” expressed throughout the dialogue are still real and ever-current. Odets’ play and its underlying message are still relevant, and the Street Corner Arts production gives both the play and the message their just due. This is a wonderful opportunity to experience an important play from a significant time in the American theater.
Performances are scheduled at the Hyde Park Theatre, 511 West 43rd St., Austin, Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. through December 20.