“I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night, alive as you and me . . .” And, in fact, I did.
One Big Union, a perfectly cast, carefully crafted play about the 1915 death by firing squad of the legendary labor organizer and songwriter (yes, right here in the City of Salt) was presented to an appreciative audience at the Rose Wagner on Wednesday evening. Mostly donors to Entrada Institute, an arts and educational center promoting understanding of the Colorado Plateau, made up a full house in this benefit performance.
Despite the topic, it was a bright, easy night of theater. “Like-minded souls” gathered on the day after a stunning election, as we were reminded by Plan-B Theatre Artistic Director Jerry Rapier.
Might as well say upfront that the entire run is sold out, including added performances, but there is a wait list beginning an hour before each show. Find specific details below. And, like casting a ballot, this one is worth waiting in line for. (Rapier might need to think about a slightly larger venue.)
Did he or didn’t he? – the usual focus of any narrative about Joe Hill, wasn’t so much emphasized here as was the controversial trial, the inept defense, a biased judge, confused Board of Pardons, and a bothered Utah governor with a big chip on his shoulder leading, of course, to the inevitable denouement. Fact based. Not surprising in that the playwright, Debora Threedy, has been a professor at S.J. Quinney College of Law at the University of Utah for some 30 years (she retires next month) and (perhaps not coincidentally) is a past president and current member of Entrada Institute. She premiered three other of her plays at Plan-B: one about the lost young diarist Everett Ruess; another on Wallace Stegner; and an award-winning The Third Crossing concerning Thomas Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings.
In One Big Union the murders of a Salt Lake City grocer and his son are examined, but there is music, too: rousing songs composed by Hill for the Industrial Workers of the World, or Wobblies, as they were and still are known, accompanied by snappy and often very funny dialogue and well-executed choreography by an ensemble cast of six. “The music,” says Threedy, grateful it is now available in the public domain, “is all about poking fun.” And it is delightful to hear.
Billed as “Working Stiff,” the always excellent Carleton Bluford functioned as something of a Master of Ceremonies (think Joel Grey in Cabaret). He was pitch-perfect in every sense, though slightly rushed in a few moments of dialogue. (The entire cast needed to slow down a bit, but the sheer amount of dialogue/monologue was daunting.)
Roger Dunbar happens to look startlingly like Joe Hill, plays an intricate guitar and has a beautiful voice — as well singing just as he should. That’s to say that Threedy, who initially thought much of her play should be set in a hobo jungle instead of a Union Hall, got her wish in the various performances of the Joe Hill songs, which were mostly foot-stomping good fun and might have been danced around a campfire. But Dunbar also could be plaintive and angry, awkward and loving — a most versatile and convincing actor. Even his Swedish accent was subtle and believable. When he sings “You’ll Get Pie in the Sky When You Die” to drown out the Salvation Army workers, well . . .
Joe always insisted he was shot, not at the grocer’s, but by a friend in an argument over a woman. Still, as a gentleman and man of his word, he wouldn’t reveal any names. His doctor betrayed him to the police for showing up with a gunshot wound to the chest the night of the murders. Daniel Beecher as the doc gives a superb performance (along with playing numerous other characters exceedingly well). A favorite line came when he wanted to inject Joe with morphine (police request) and Joe rejected it; Doc McHugh urges him not to be a martyr, which, of course, Joe would go on to become. Much of the audience was in on that joke and hooted. (Maybe you had to be there.)
Tracie Merrill as activist Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and longtime correspondent with the imprisoned Hill was a standout. She had some great lines: explaining, for instance, that when she was imprisoned with prostitutes, she simply “organized them.” Joe was delighted and even more infatuated with this Rebel Girl he had written that particular song for.
April Fossen played multiple roles with her usual aplomb and amazing range. Her various turns as a reporter for The Salt Lake Telegram were smartly dramatized.
Jay Perry also has a remarkable voice, and played Joe’s vanished friend Otto as well as his bumbling attorney with equal excellence. Mr. Block, of course, was not only a great song vehicle for Perry and his marvelous range of voice, but a chance for everyone to think of who won the election the day before and chuckle.
Ably directed by Jason Bowcutt, musically directed by David Evanoff and capably choreographed by Stephanie Howell, the production was, as always, excellently and invisibly stage managed by Jennifer Freed.
Was the production perfect? At 80 minutes in length, it could have used a seventh-inning stretch.
And there was plenty of impact with the stage lights dimmed, Joe blindfolded, tied to a chair, target pinned to his chest; the recorded gunfire that followed seemed like, forgive me, overkill.
“One Big Union” by Debora Threedy runs Nov. 11-20 (Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 4 and 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 and 5:30 p.m.) and is entirely sold out. A pre-paid wait list begins in the box office one hour before showtime. You must be present, in person, to be added to the list. At showtime, as many patrons as possible will be seated in empty seats. If you are unable to be seated, you will immediately receive a full refund. http://planbtheatre.org/onebigunion/