There’s an entrancing production currently on the boards at Westport Country Playhouse that, at one in the same time, evokes the past yet gently comments on the present. It’s “Woody Sez,” a sort of country-folk jukebox musical that is a broad retelling of Woody Guthrie’s peripatetic life as well of a portrait of an era that became known as the Great Depression, with many allusions to John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath,” which chronicled that era through the eyes of the Joad family, Okies displaced to California, the hoped-for Eden that turned out to be a form of man-made Hades. Though the evening deals, mainly via song, with suffering, loss and the often ineffectual protest of the common man against capitalist hegemony, in viewing the performances you are less likely to feel the urge to storm the barricades than to nestle in front of a campfire as you listen to stories well-told.
Perhaps the disconnect – hearing songs of protest and tales of privation while feeling you are wrapped in a warm blanket – stems from the talent and sheer likeability of the four performers: Katie Barton, David Finch, David M. Lutken (who created the production and stars as Guthrie) and Leenya Rideout, each talented in multiple ways. The show had its debut at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2007 and went on to replicate the performance in over 60 cities in England, Europe, China and the USA. In other words, there’s been a lot of time to make the evening seem seamless and, well, the creation of a family.
Part of the enjoyment of the evening is the musical talent of the four actors as they shift from guitar to fiddle, banjo, mandolin, jaw harp, harmonica, bass and dulcimer, all the while their distinct voices intertwining. There is also constant movement – this is not a static production with people just playing instruments – as well as just enough characterization to give you a sense of the real people who influenced Guthrie’s life.
For those of a certain age, there’s a somewhat bittersweet element to the evening, for as the production points out, Guthrie’s spirit and music became part of the 60s generation of protest and, to a certain extent, a solidification of a generational ethos. I can’t imagine a significant number of young people gathering together today to sing songs of protest or experience a camaraderie evoked by “This Land is Your Land” or “This Train is Bound for Glory.” Those songs, and others such as “If I had a Hammer,” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” (not written by Guthrie but inspired by his spirit) were anthems of a sort for a mind-set that, at the time, seemed liberating…and hopeful…and now seems as antiquated as a belief in the music of the spheres.
Perhaps the most striking moment of the evening is when the cast offers the haunting ballad, “Deportees,” with lyrics by Guthrie and music by Martin Hoffman. The song was written after a plane filled with deported Mexican farm workers crashed near Los Gatos canyon, killing all on board. Who was killed? Well, the song suggests, it doesn’t matter – they had no names, no history, no families – they were just “deportees.”
As I sat watching the show a thought arose: wouldn’t it be interesting if grandparents brought their grandchildren to this theater and then, after the performance, sat down with them to capture memories and evoke a time when many in a generation refused to remain passive in the face of bureaucratic insanity, a time when one’s high school GPA and the number of “Likes” you accumulated on Facebook didn’t matter? Well now, wasn’t that a time, the grandparents might say; the grandchildren would probably stifle an urge to yawn.
“Woody Sez” is in a limited run through January 20. For tickets or more information call 203-227-4177 or go to www.westportplayhouse.org.