Reprinted from yesterday's late editions
Misleadingly advertised as "a play," "Woody Guthrie" is, nonetheless, a sensitive, relatively honest character study of the '30s protest singer. Opened officially Monday night at Ford's the run will continue for three weeks.
The study is clearly a work for detailed affection by Tom Taylor, who evolved the character through careful reserarch and plays him with general avoidance of sentimentality.
While Woody's son, Arlo, is the present's living link to the man, Woody's own songs, attitudes and perceptions remain current. With such simple works as "This Land Is Your Land," "So Long, It's Been Good to Know You" and "Pastures of Plenty," which Taylor presents in his soft, nasal twang, the sound is pure '78 coffee house.
While Texan Taylor may seem to have come by that nasal twang from birth, it probably stems from his studies of Guthrie's records. Guthrie's own wanderings took him to Washington in the early '40s. For some months he haunted the Library of Congress music division, working with Alan Lomax on a collection of folk songs the library so wisely sponsored.
Born in Oklahoma and named Woodrow Wilson Guthrie for the president of his birth year, 1912, Guthrie roamed the Southwest, working at all sorts of odd jobs and catching the thoughts and emotions of his less vocal comrades. He had his own short-lived radio program in Los Angeles, appeared in union halls and picket lines, and his autobiography of 1943, "Bound for Glory", finally became a film two years ago. After years of Illness, he died in 1967.
While Taylor presents the dry humor of the man which seemed to come from the dry, dusty air of Oklahoma and Texas, and while he does verge into suggestions of Will Rogers, the chief virtue of the characterization is its prickliness. Guthrie is, he boasts, his own man; Taylor doesn't condescend to trying to make him likable.
George Boyd's staging is resourceful in an accommodating set by Robert Blackman, using varied areas of the stage and - a welcome novelty - also using Ford's ample stage apron. This has the effect of furthering intimacy, and most of the time Taylor avoids trying to envelop us. It is, I think, an honest way to treat the character.
Such, of course, has its pride, a one-note pitch which keeps us at a distance, and for all the devised movement, makes for a static evening. Though Taylor quotes Guthrie on topics from field workers and preachers to God and Congress, Guthrie sounded predictably on all topics, which is not to say that he was dishonest. A whole evening of him - well, two hours broken by an intermission - gets to be rather a long wail.
Ford's audience took the evening, however, in the spirit intended, respecting the character and pleasuring in the simple presentation of the songs, with Taylor's own guitar and harmonica accompaniment, Taylor has done his self-assigned task with clean devotion, but if Guthrie is not your dish, Taylor will not win you over.