“Working” at 59E59 Theaters

December 17, 2012 | Off-Broadway | Tags:
“Working” at 59E59 Theaters (Closed December 30, 2012)
From the Book by Studs Terkel
Adapted by Stephen Schwartz and Nina Faso
Directed by Gordon Greenberg
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited

Jimmy Carter was President of the United States in 1978 when Stephen Schwartz’s “Working” opened on Broadway at the 46th Street Theatre in New York City. The national unemployment rate then was 6.1%. Remarkably, after spiking at 9.6% in 2010, the “New York Times” (December 7, 2012) reports the jobless rate is edging down “to its lowest rate in four years at 7.1 %. The strength of “Working” is not its deconstruction of the issues of unemployment and politics; its power lies in the musical’s successful exploration of the meaning of and the tradition of work itself and of those who perform that work. Indeed, the subtitle of Stud Terkel’s 1974 “Working,” upon which the musical is based, celebrates the work people do all day and “how they feel about what they do.”

In Walt Whitman’s poem “To Working Men,” the speaker begins the second stanza of the ode with “This is the poem of occupations; In the labour of engines and trades, and the labour of fields, I find the developments, And find the eternal meanings. Workmen and Workwomen!” The twenty-five characters in “Working” universally echo Whitman’s sentiment: they all seek meaning in what they do. From Joe Cassidy’s first appearance as Mike Dillard the ironworker until his last appearance as the same character, the other twenty-four characters speak and sing about enduring themes: not being recognized for what they do; needing to be valued; feeling no longer needed or ineffective; not being regarded as special; and wondering if they will somehow be remembered for what they created during their working lives.

These concerns counterpoint Studs Terkel’s own when he writes about “Working” and work: “This book, being about work, is, by its very nature, about violence – to the spirit as well as to the body.” And when he conjectures that “Perhaps it is this specter that most haunts working men and women: the planned obsolescence of people that is of a piece with the planned obsolescence of the things they make. Or sell.”

The ensemble six-member cast of “Working” effectively portrays the stories Studs Terkel collected and recorded (and others like them) and under Gordon Greenberg’s innovative and spirited direction these energetic working actors use their too-often unappreciated craft to enliven their various characters with believable ethos and pathos. Greenberg’s choice to demonstrate clearly that acting is indeed working gives a fresh beginning to this incarnation of “Working.” It was powerful to see the actors preparing to be on stage and to hear the first lighting and sound cues from the stage manager (seen on stage). And although the stage manager and other crew were later seen onstage assisting actors with costume changes and props, it would have been even more powerful to hear a few more cues being read and see actors preparing for their work behind the scrim.

Of the fourteen musical numbers in “Working,” all of which serve “Working” well, the following stand out as exceptional performances. Marie-France Arcilla’s performances in “Millwork” and “A Very Good Day” as Grace Clements the millworker and Theresa Liu the nanny embody the violence to the spirit as well as the body that Terkel imagined. Joe Cassidy’s ironworker Mike Dillard provides convincing bookend performances to the musical. Donna Lynn Champlin’s reflective elementary school teacher Rose Hoffman elicits empathic responses from the audience. Jay Armstrong Johnson’s snarly student Ralph Werner even exposes the underbelly of angst in his character. But it is perhaps the haunting performances of Nehal Joshi in “Delivery” and Kenita R. Miller in “Cleanin’ Women” as Freddy Rodriguez the fast food worker and Maggie Holmes the cleaning lady respectively that rip open the hearts of the audience as its members realize that they stand with these actors portraying workers seeking meaning in life and craft. No human being wants to be “just” anyone and no laborer wants her or his descendents to endure what they endured to merely “survive.”

In all of “Working’s” musical numbers and songs, the spirit of Walt Whitman can be heard as they echo from movement to voice to instrument to heart. Walt Whitman wrote in his ode “To Working Men,” “I will be even with you, and you shall be even with me. If you stand at work in a shop, I stand as nigh as the nighest in the same shop.” The cast, musicians, and creative team of “Working” have generously given the audience “Something to Point To” and something to be proud of. Indeed, some of these performances are so powerful and so convincing that the actors could even be with us (Whitman) sans costumes and without props. That truly is the magic of the thing we call the theatre. “Working” works and substantiates Walt Whitman’s claim that eternal meaning is descried in working men and working women.