FOLK SINGER, WRITER and political activist Woody Guthrie spent the last 13 years of his life in a hospital bed. The freight-train-hopping troubadour -- as depicted in his memoir, "Bound for Glory" -- the man who penned the anthemic "This Land Is Your Land," who spoke up for the disenfranchised, suffered from Huntington's chorea, a degenerative disease that left him unable to write, speak or sing.
Guthrie's final days are the subject of writer Michael Patrick Smith's new play, "Woody Guthrie Dreams Before Dying," opening Thursday at the Creative Alliance in Baltimore. Smith, a longtime fan of the iconic American folk singer, also stars in the title role.
"His life story was always about rambling and traveling," Smith says. "The thought of this man of action being stuck in bed was so compelling. What would he do?"
He would dream. Smith contends that Guthrie would have continued to be active through his dream life. That premise was the genesis of the play, which begins with Guthrie lying in bed. Fact and fiction soon part company as Smith has the folk singer relive key moments of his life through dreams; important figures, some real and some imagined -- including an ex-wife, Joseph Stalin and Jesus -- make an appearance. The play also features a live performance of Guthrie's music by the ensemble cast.
Artistic director of Baltimore's the Living Room Company, Smith has directed, written and produced dozens of plays in Baltimore and New York, including writing "BOX," "Trust the Government," and "Sunsets," which recalls the events of 9/11 and was his first show with the Creative Alliance.
As preparation for "Dreams," Smith spoke with everybody he could find who had a connection with Guthrie, including Nora Guthrie (Woody's daughter) and folk singer Pete Seeger. Smith read hundreds of pages of Guthrie's original handwritten lyrics and manuscripts at the Guthrie archives in New York, spoke to Huntington's specialists in Baltimore and even drove to Guthrie's home town of Okemah, Okla.
Through the course of his research, Smith found he had much in common with the folk singer, who died in 1967. Both had rural roots -- Smith grew up on a farm in Frederick County -- and many of Guthrie's struggles and political beliefs were close to his own.
"I became obsessed," admits Smith, who found himself at one point buried in too much information.
"I felt lost, I wasn't sure what to focus on. I wasn't even sure if it should be a one-man show or a full cast."
Guthrie's daughter provided the key; she mentioned the mythological figure of the trickster during a conversation with Smith.
"It opened the door for me," Smith says. " It touched on all the reasons I wanted to write this play, to have it rooted in the mythology of America, in folk tales and folk songs and storytelling. Once I kept that in mind, I had the freedom to make it the story I wanted."
A play that travels through the ups and downs of his Guthrie's musical career, his marriages and his battle with a fatal illness sounds as if it could end on a discordant note. Not so, says Smith, who says the work is about hope, courage and redemption.
"It's cool, I guess, to be pessimistic these days. But I think it takes an act of courage to be optimistic, to put it all on the line. That takes guts. That is what Woody was all about."