‘American Clock’ at Redtwist: There are songs but the key is bitter irony in this Depression tale
By Lawrence B. Johnson
Arthur Miller’s plays consistently center on the vicissitudes of ordinary folks, with economic plight as a common theme. One can only wonder how the playwright, a life-long liberal who died in 2005 at age 89, might have mirrored our own times — this era of the super-wealthy 1 percent, weakened labor unions and minimum-wage workers clamoring for a better shake.
Actually, a plausible answer is before us, in Redtwist Theatre’s gritty, chilling production of Miller’s “The American Clock.” Written in 1980 and revised over the next few years, “The American Clock” – think of an hour glass with the sand running out – essentially retells the saga of the Great Depression.
The play is unabashed political theater, and in that sense less a drama than a cautionary polemic. His implication: This could happen again; and when the economic chips are down, it’s a few fat cats at the money table while the multitude of mice glean bits on the floor. Miller couldn’t be clearer. One perpetually hungry migrant worker observes that a handful of tobacco owners would earn more money than all the tobacco harvesters combined.
“The American Clock,” based on Studs Terkel’s “Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression,” opened on Broadway in 1980, and was an instant flop. By 1984, the revamped play, now with a few period songs added (“Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries” and “The Sunny Side of the Street” among others), had a new title: “The American Clock: A Vaudeville.” This is the version on-stage at Redtwist.
It is a huge ensemble affair involving 18 actors, most of whom play multiple roles, plus a piano player (the redoubtable Mark Bowman). In Redtwists tiny performing space – lined along one long wall by a double row of seats, high chairs in the second row — director Jan Ellen Graves manages to avoid a feeling of the Kennedy Expressway at rush hour. Indeed, the whole scene feels remarkably roomy.
Two narrative lines run in parallel through “The American Clock.” One is specifically that of the story-teller, a wealthy investor who correctly reads the warning signs and cashes out just before the market crashes on Oct. 29, 1929.
Brian Parry gives a magnetic performance as this savvy entrepreneur who tries to warn others that the fantastical bubble is about to burst, only to be rebuffed by starry-eyed investors who have watched their wealth swelling by the day. His own cash safely in hand, some of it tucked into his shoes, Parry’s prescient economist becomes our bemused commentator on a tectonic shift that would transform millionaires into paupers.
The second narrative thread brings the stark terror of the Great Depression down to the family level. Overnight, Rose and Moe Baum (the radiant Melonie Collmann with Jeff Gamlin hitting the torment in her desperate husband) see their opulent life-style vanish and soon hear the wolves scratching at the door. At least Rose clings to her piano (she loves to sing and Collmann brings a splendid voice to her songs). That little spinet is the one thing she cannot give up — ever.
We watch their son Lee (Aaron Kirby in a sensitive, steadily maturing portrayal) emerge from adolescent to collegian to young journalist. We also see in him a youth tossed on the churn of a world at sea, and searching for a moral compass.
But like everything else in these frantic years, such compasses are in generally short supply. We see the bankers, demonized by a bereft populace, attempting to auction off the property of a broken Iowa farmer (played with touching conviction by Michael Sherwin).
The playwright makes a sharp point about American racial disparity. When Kirby’s journalist asks the black owner of a Southern diner (Semaj Miller, haunting in several roles) for his take on the severe downturn, he replies that he’s fascinated to see white folks experiencing the only mode of life black people have ever known.
Through the lens of the hungry, the jobless, we also observe the distant, glowing appeal of Soviet socialism – and not just socialism, but communism by that name. Workers, unite! Join the Party in solidarity! Thus our cash-secure commentator asks the compelling question: What kept the country from coming apart? With the seeming failure of capitalism, why didn’t something like the Russian revolution happen here?
One answer is offered by various voices: Franklin D. Roosevelt’s aggressive Works Progress Administration (created in 1935, renamed the Work Projects Administration in 1939) provided jobs that helped to pull the country back from the brink of implosion. FDR is the people’s hero and hope. As Rose’s German-born father (Jerry M. Miller) fatuously proposes: Why don’t they just stop with these pointless elections and make him king?
The “vaudeville” overlay on “The American Clock” may seem to add the sugar coating of a few happy tunes, but their resonance is purely ironic. Though stalwart Rose offers them up from the heart, the assembled cast sings them deadpan. Life’s a bowl of cherries all right — a dust bowl.
The suffering before our eyes is palpable. You feel the rampant fear, the more than economic depression. It may not be one of Miller’s best plays, but as polemics go, “The American Clock” is a stunner.
- Performance location, dates and times: Details at TheatreinChicago.com
- Redtwist adds David Lindsay-Abaire’s ‘Good People’ to its 2014-15 season: Get details here