In the early years of the Great Depression, Hallie Flanagan, who would later lead the Federal Theater Project, wrote a play with a student of hers at Vassar, Margaret Ellen Clifford, based on a short story by Whittaker Chambers—the same Whittaker Chambers who later exposed Alger Hiss as a Communist spy to the House Un-American Activities Committee. Chambers as a young man had been an avowed Communist, and his story, published in March 1931 in the left-wing New Masses, was adapted and expanded by Flanagan and Clifford into a scathing indictment of inaction by the government and moneyed classes in the face not only of the Depression, but of a record drought in the Midwest and South. Can You Hear Their Voices? is being revived by the Peculiar Works Project in a space taken over specifically for the production. Sometimes riveting, sometimes awkward, the play is more than a historical curiosity, but not as dramatically polished as one would like. The original premiered at Vassar, and at times it feels a bit too collegiate in spirit. A projection assures us that “every episode in the play is factual,” and indeed, the chief incident in Chambers’s story occurred in England, Ark., in January 1931, when starving farmers looted a Red Cross distribution center. The resulting play, staged in May, was about as immediate as theater can be, and Voices may be the first agitprop play in American history.
To the farmers’ potent story Flanagan and Clifford added scenes of high society. Based on fact or not, their contributions are loaded with ham-fisted irony, though it sometimes hits home. “Congress is a body of wise, elder men who have the country’s good primarily at heart,” says a phlegmatic congressman (Ken Glickfeld, channeling one of those great ’30s character actors, like Lewis Stone or William Frawley). “It’s true we’re in the grip of a severe crisis, but just for that reason we have to proceed with caution.”
Flanagan and Clifford’s sections focus on the congressman and his daughter, Harriet, a young debutante (Tonya Canada) who feels for the people affected by the devastating drought, and tries to persuade him to do something for them. But he’s more absorbed in his newspaper and his plan to give her a smashing coming-out party.
Played like broad sketch comedy, the scenes of toffs and dowagers with foot-long cigarette holders are meant to serve as counterpoint to the debates among the farmers about whether to seize Red Cross stores of food and milk, and whether to use firearms. The production doesn’t encompass both styles effectively, however. “Come out of the fog, old dear,” Harriet says to her father, in a speech that sounds like a promotion for Vassar. “I’m one of the country’s educated women. I go to college. I take a course in government and one in charities and corrections.”
The play is given a committed—if unevenly acted—performance by its cast. Among the standouts are Christopher Hurt as Wardell, a desperate, left-leaning farmer, and Rebecca Servon and Mick Hilgers as a Russian immigrant couple. There’s also nice work from Ben Kopit and Sarah Elizondo as Frank and Hilda Francis, a young couple with a baby for whom they cannot find enough milk. Yet even in the scenes drawn from Chambers’ story the irony is laid on pretty thickly: “We’ve got the government in back of us,” says Wardell’s wife, Ann, but, of course, they don’t.
Under the direction of Ralph Lewis and Barry Rowell, most of the cast double and triple in roles, frequently with gender- and age-blind abandon. In some scenes there are women in suits as well as men in gowns. It’s a bizarre misjudgment that produces a sort of alienation effect, distancing the viewer from the proceedings just when one longs to be pulled in by the forceful sincerity inherent in the piece.
In fact, Voices is at its most powerful when at its simplest: projections (used by Flanagan in the original production) of dusty plains, cracked earth, and abandoned tires evoke the misery of the drought and the sense of despair, as well as the champagne high life of dancers throwing themselves into the Charleston. Superb musical accompaniment, written by Seth Bedford, intimates the emotional tone, whether apprehension or frivolity. Ultimately Flanagan and Clifford come down on the side of democracy, but the play is a warning that armed violence remains a possibility, even a right, if a government ignores and abandons its citizens in times of crisis.