|"Something to Point To" the cast indicates in the finale|
An updated musical version with the same title concludes Actors Theatre of Indiana's 2021-22 season at the Center for the Performing Arts' intimate Studio Theater. With a host of mostly well-known songwriters underlining his perspectives, the show makes clear that Terkel's sympathies, though they covered the spectrum, could fairly be described as left-of-center. He cast a jaundiced eye at the upper crust and tended to find virtue, often wrung from necessity, in the lives of the working class and those struggling to climb the social ladder as white-collar serfs.
The politics behind different levels of work life are mostly implied. Today's polarization complicates the simpler picture that Terkel documented in the 1970s, but the difficulties of finding job satisfaction remain in the midst of sporadic optimism and pride. The rousing "Brother Trucker" (by James Taylor) and the blithe sauciness of "It's an Art" (a celebration of waitressing by Stephen Schwartz) lifted the spirits on opening night, thanks to their staging and solo turns by Allen Sledge and Cynthia Collins, respectively. Collins was positively balletic while putting across the song.
Social satire was occasionally sharp, as the side-by-side perspectives of a fund-raiser and a hooker revealed in antiphonal monologues by Collins and Lillie Eliza Thomas. Mixed success finding bliss at the lower end of the wage scale was summed up in the portrait of a burger-flipper occasionally permitted to escape by delivering orders and getting a nice tip: "Delivery." Adam Tran occupied the solo spot in a number that typified the production's skillful blending of individual skills and ensemble aplomb.
|Don Farrell is all nerves as a press agent|
Don Farrell vividly represented personal testimony loaded with ambivalence as an ideologically driven finance capitalist and a harried press agent. Like many workers, he realizes that he is only good insofar as he makes other people look good. In monologue and song, Aviva Pressman described repetitive soul- and body-damaging work in a suitcase factory, which led into an ensemble she headed: "Millwork," another Taylor creation. The staging, with chiaroscuro lighting of the chorus in the background of Bernard Killian's industrial set as Pressman's worker poured her heart out, was among the show's most moving episodes Friday night.
"Working" doesn't go on and on, fortunately, though I felt the show could use an intermission. All the songs, especially when given choreography at a high level by Carol Worcel, struck home. Movement among Killian's raked platforms was smoothly coordinated under the direction of Lysa Fox; everything flowed. "Cleaning Women," highly derivative of Motown girl groups, made its point trenchantly, but Micki Grant's song was not impressive.
Work that produces something tangible gets the show's final paean. Along the way, the pathos of care-
|Allen Sledge tells about the satisfaction of fighting fires.|
taking jobs earns a sincere salute for contrast. Collins' portrait of a public-school teacher was rather crisp and shrewish, perhaps raising the useful point that even undercompensated jobs are sometimes filled by worn-down people who may not ever have been up to the task.
At the end, "Something to Point To" had the full cast celebrating valuable work that is often quite anonymous. As long as the building is not razed during the builders' lifetime, there stands an achievement in bricks and mortar to be praised by its builders. Still, pride has often led America to go off the rails, as Terkel always recognized.
In 1971, while he was working on "Working," Terkel came to Flint, Michigan, to see a stage version of his best seller "Division Street America." Interviewing him for the Flint Journal, I asked him what had changed about the U.S. since that book had come out in 1965.
"The 'We're number one' feeling is very important to Americans, but that outlook won't work any longer," he told me.
What will take its place? I wondered. "Doing something good," he said. "Doing something you like to do and are good at. In the past, man's work was making things. Now the technology can make things. We've got to redefine work. And we've got to ask some of what the scientists call impertinent questions about set values."
Now, I don't believe in the afterlife and this is merely a rhetorical query, but in light of seeing this gripping show in 2022, I wish I could ask the master interviewer: So, Studs, how're we doing?
[Photos by Ed Stewart]