Can You Hear Their Voices?
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
June 5, 2010
An economy in disarray due, largely, to the excesses of greedy unregulated speculators. Hundreds of thousands thrown out of work due to disastrous events that have devastated their native ecosystem. Gaping disparities between an unemployed underclass and a small, disproportionately wealthy upper class.
Is it 1931 or is it 2010?
Can You Hear Their Voices?, written nearly 80 years by Hallie Flanagan and Margaret Ellen Clifford (from a story by Whittaker Chambers), is about all the things I mentioned in my first paragraph, events that threatened to turn the United States on its ear at the height of the Great Depression. It tells two parallel stories: one of a group of Arkansas farmers who—their land, crops, and livestock destroyed by drought—gradually turn to thoughts of communist revolution to wrest their livelihoods from a local banker who has foreclosed on their homes; the other about a young woman, daughter of a wealthy senator, who is thrown a coming out party at a cost of some quarter of a million dollars, even as she becomes aware that such a sum could do much more good if it were directed toward the suffering of those less well-off.
The play itself feels dated and stiff, very much an artifact of a period when American dramatists were only starting to find their native voice and learn to tell stories of our country with depth and texture. But the history it recounts—for it is based, we are told, on actual events—is eminently worth remembering. And it's easy to understand why the good people at Peculiar Works Project have chosen to bring it to the stage at this particular moment, for the parallels between then and now are pretty clear. The one important difference that I can see is that we don't have thinkers like Flanagan and Clifford writing plays espousing significant social and economic change (for this play is a fervent argument in favor of communism, albeit one that might be easily rebutted with the benefits of hindsight we now possess).
So, see Can You Hear Their Voices? for a taste of idealism and agitprop that feels perplexingly out of fashion. And see it, too, to sample the work of a company whose aesthetic is pretty singular. Peculiar Works stages plays in found spaces—this one is being done in a storefront on Great Jones Street, one that designer Nikolay Levin and directors Ralph Lewis and Barry Rowell have transformed into a welcoming, intimate place of zero artifice and inestimable energy. They've brought together 11 actors to play dozens of roles, along with three musicians who provide live accompaniment on keyboard, clarinet, and bass—that's three more live musicians than most plays on Broadway employ, and it's a real pleasure to hear them interpret Seth Bedford's evocative and often melancholy score throughout the show.
Working with dramaturg Gwen Orel, Peculiar Works has included a host of informative and provocative material in the program that provides valuable context for what we're seeing and explains the company's unique approach to mounting theatre. This is an immersive experience, into a long-ago time too much like our own, and into an artistic ethos too rarely seen in New York City in any mainstream venue. I feel lucky to have experienced it.