Poverty is on our minds these days -- or at least on the mind of anyone who navigates a city street and allows his eyes to drift five degrees to the right or the left. The outstretched hands and rattled cups are literally under our noses. We are beseeched and besieged.
So perhaps it's not at all strange that poverty should be turning up on our stages as well. Not just locally. On Broadway too, which tends to go for more spangled enterprises. If, however, the theater is allowed to operate as other than an entertainment machine, it will address society's deepest concerns and obsessions. It may be a playwright who will say what has been bothering us. Or it may be a director, who will reinterpret a work out of the past so that it accords with the unsettled temper of the times. One way or another the silence gets broken, taboos confronted, fears aired.
This thought first crystallized in my head as I was leaving Arena Stage, where Sean O'Casey's 1924 drama "Juno and the Paycock" is receiving a decidedly gritty production, aimed straight at the gut. I suspect Irish director Joe Dowling had had his fill of those travel poster images depicting his country as a cheerful and wispily romantic place, a bit run-down perhaps, but all the more photogenic for that. He certainly has staged O'Casey's masterpiece with a scalpel -- cutting away every hint of sentiment, discouraging any sudden impulses of generosity, making sure that whatever flights of fancy the characters allow themselves lead nowhere.
As he sees it -- and makes certain we see it too -- squalor confines O'Casey's characters as tightly as any prison. And their options are precious few. For the men -- the shiftless Captain Jack Boyle and Joxer Daly, that water rat masquerading as a loyal friend -- drink and daydreams are the only way out. The women don't even enjoy those questionable escapes.
Someone, after all, has to maintain the semblance of a family life, put the crusts of bread on the table, sweep up the broken crockery and hold despair at the door as long as possible. Such is Juno Boyle's lot, until even she can no longer bear the mounting burdens -- a son abducted and shot by rebels, a daughter seduced and left for pregnant, a husband too besotted to stand upright.
Before fleeing into the Dublin streets, Juno offers a prayer to Jesus. "Take away our hearts o' stone, and give us hearts o' flesh! Take away this murtherin' hate, an' give us thine own eternal love!" she wails, although it's not apparent that Jesus is listening.
In her grief, she has articulated the horrible legacy of poverty: the way it hardens the emotions and deadens the soul. When the scramble for survival requires all one's energy, nothing is left for kindness and compassion.
Once the visceral impact of "Juno and the Paycock" had worn off, it occurred to me that Troy Maxson is saying as much next door in the Kreeger Theater. Different world, different age, different play. Yet a startlingly similar sense of checkmate hovers over both productions.
Maxson is the black garbage collector who dominates August Wilson's 1987 drama "Fences" with the sheer force of his will and, when that fails, the back of his massive hand. The setting is lower-class Pittsburgh in the 1950s, an era not rich in promise for one of his color and station. Maxson has managed to keep his family a rung above poverty, but the years of scraping by, of yielding up one ambition after another to the daily grind, have taken their toll.
When his wife, Rose, accuses him of being so soured by the past that he cannot conceive of a better future, the pent-up anger comes pouring out.
"Woman," he explodes, "I do the best I can do. I come here every Friday. I carry a sack of potatoes and a bucket of lard. You all line up with your hands out. I give you the lint from my pockets. I give you my sweat and my blood. I ain't got no tears. I done spent them. We go upstairs in that room at night and I fall down on you and try to blast a hole into forever. I get up Monday morning ... find my lunch on the table. I go out. Make my way. Find my strength to carry me through to the next Friday. That's all I got, Rose. That's all I got to give. I can't give nothing else."
Credit him this: Maxson is trying to honor some basic notions of familial responsibility, even if he occasionally strays from the marriage bed. Autocratic as he is, he's not the unapologetic reprobate that Captain Jack Boyle is. Boyle has reneged on any duties whatsoever and taken up residence in a fantasy world, where he strikes the posture of a gentleman of leisure.
Their frustration, however, comes out in much the same ways -- in the arbitrary reign of law that each tries to maintain over his household; in the primacy they give to their own needs; in the unpredictability of their flashing anger. They can't help passing along the cruelty the world has dealt them. And since the world has never held them in much regard, they compensate by imagining themselves as bigger than life, unacknowledged titans.
Old exploits grow with each recounting, until the past takes on epic proportions. One of the characters in "Fences" tells Maxson that he has a lot of "Uncle Remus" in his blood. Indeed, when he's had a nip from the weekly pint of gin -- and his mood is mellow -- he regales the assembled company with stories about how he wrestled with Death Himself, three days and three nights, before calling it a draw. Or walked 200 miles to Mobile. Or hit seven home runs off Satchel Paige.
In that, he is no different from the Captain, who once sailed on a coal scow to Liverpool and has built a whole maritime career on the sad little expedition. When society denies you a biography, you invent one. You even come to believe it. The impulse is as common in O'Casey's plays as it is in Wilson's.
All the boasting and the blather make for rich dialogue -- and it is no coincidence that both playwrights are often praised for finding the poetry in colloquial speech. But therein lies a trap. When the language is picturesque, one can easily assume that the characters are too, and that poverty, for all its manifest drawbacks, has its colorful side. The contrary would seem to be true here: The taller the tale, the more desperate the teller; the balder the lie, the bleaker the landscape.
The need to let the world know that you count -- that you are more than a welfare statistic or an unemployment check -- is clearly the animating principle of "Project!," the self-described musical documentary that pulls into the Eisenhower Theater for a week's run on Tuesday. I've not seen the production yet, so I can't say how well it works in performance. But its intentions are illuminating.
What it purports to do -- in songs, dances and video segments -- is take us inside Chicago's Cabrini-Green, one of the most notorious public housing projects in America, and rescue some of the 13,500 inhabitants from the anonymity that is their fate. It is a soul-deadening place -- one square mile of high-rises and town houses, surrounded by macadam and broken glass. Gang warfare and violence are rife. The facilities are in a perpetual state of disrepair. The authorities are inattentive.
"Project!" doesn't pretend otherwise. "You may know about the killin's and all that stuff. But that's only half the story, and it's not enough," goes the opening rap number. The other half has to do with determination, the will to change, the refusal to give in to the all-pervasive apathy.
"Project" was devised by Patrick Henry, the artistic director of Chicago's Free Street Theater, working with Cabrini-Green's residents, some of whom are in the cast. It functions as both a diagnosis and a cure. By enacting the awful realities of their lives, the cast members are, in fact, taking control, triumphing over the misery. "Sure it's a rough place," asserts one woman. "But there are good people there. And if we can do this -- believe in ourselves -- so can they."
That bedrock faith in the essential goodness of people is also what sustains the dispossessed characters of John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath," which has been brought to the stage in a strapping adaptation by Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company. After runs on the West Coast and in London, the production has now settled into Broadway's Cort Theatre. By any yardstick, it is a huge enterprise -- a kind of "Nicholas Nickleby" of the American Depression -- that traces the westward trek of the Joad family from the dust bowls of Oklahoma to the fertile, but no more welcoming valleys of California.
Every manner of catastrophe befalls them along the way. Nature assaults them. Death, intimidation and violence diminish their numbers. Some turn back, discouraged, and in the end, rising flood waters force those who remain into an abandoned boxcar. The play adheres to the novel's straightforward linear plot. Onward and downward all the way.
The sets are elemental -- a wall of corrugated metal, a barbed-wire fence or flickering campfires serving to conjure up the passing locales. And even when the drenching rains come, splashing down into a trough where the orchestra pit usually is, there is a simple, stunning purity about the effect. The imagination is soberly and successfully courted. In the pieces, we can see the panorama.
I'm not sure, however, that we still believe Ma Joad's paean to the people's inherent ability to endure, whatever the obstacles. And there's something sticky about Tom Joad's declaration that "I'll be everywhere -- wherever you look. Wherever they's a fight so hungry people can eat ... wherever they's a cop, beatin' up a guy. ... " Even though it is the heart of the novel, that kind of fervor strikes us as hopelessly idealistic, if not downright corny these days.
What is moving about this majestic production, written and directed by Frank Galati, is the relentlessness of the losses. Characters who seemingly have nothing left to give up are obliged, time and again, to give up a little bit more. And they do. Everywhere, there is slippage and erosion. Under the circumstances, their faith in the future is bitterly ironic. What use are prayers against so much devastation? Ask Juno.
Our cities, in fact, are rampant with latter-day versions of Steinbeck's have-nots. They live under cardboard roofs, their possessions piled high in shopping carts or stuffed into garbage bags. They curl up on subway grates, wash in the public fountains and at mealtime line up patiently at the mobile soup kitchen. They mutter to themselves, and sometimes to us, prompting us to quicken our pace.
We do not know them, any more than we know what to do about their plight. But the theater just may afford us a start. It puts faces on the faceless and fixes the homeless in time and place, so they cease to be abstractions, afloat in our cold indifference.
Poverty is no prettier for being depicted on a stage. But it's harder to turn away when you're in a playhouse.