Theatre is evolving. While some scripts still relate the story of a unique person or community, it seems more writers are attempting to use representative characters to capture something more universal. These shows often consist of monologues that revolve around a central theme, such as girls' and women's lives in A ... My Name Is Alice and female sexuality in The Vagina Monologues. Sometimes, as in The Vagina Monologues, each component is the result of real-life research and interviews conducted and modified by the playwright.
And so it with Working, based on the book by Studs Terkel, adapted for the stage by Stephen Schwartz and Nina Faso, and performed last weekend by the Quad City Music Guild. The script's collection of characters - such as Babe the cashier, Anthony the stone mason, and Candy the political fundraiser - is meant to represent an entire American working class.
But unlike the aforementioned plays, the musical Working has quite a few weak spots, which sometimes make the show seem superficial and overwrought. Some numbers stand out as beautifully constructed vignettes, including Frances Nunez (Melissa McBain) the migrant worker's heartbreaking song "Un Major Dia Vendora" with live acoustic guitar, and Kate Rushton (Judy VanDeWoestyne) the housewife's reminder in "Just a Housewife" that stay-at-home mothers work hard, too.
But others, such as Al the parking-garage attendant's "Lovin' Al" and Tom Patrick's over-emotional song "Fathers & Sons," were monotonous and didn't seem to tell the true stories of the characters as workers. Nunez's sense of helplessness and vivid memories of her hard-working mother give the character a genuine background for the audience to relate to. In contrast, "Lovin' Al" lets us understand only a few surface details of his character as a worker - that he likes to drive fast, that he can park cars well. We don't get enough to really see Al as a person through his song.
Transitions are also extremely contrived. For example, Joe the retiree meanders around a park bench, then talks about how he likes to watch fires. Soon enough, we hear a siren, and the scene shifts to a firefighters' locker room. There were also a few items that seemed to be mistakes in the script, such as the moment when Rose Hoffman (Wendy Czekalski) the teacher wonders why, as an immigrant, she wasn't given the opportunity to learn to speak Jewish (not Yiddish or Hebrew) in school. Perhaps this was meant as a joke, but it didn't come off that way.
In this play, who you are is defined by what you do. Every kind of labor is glorified, from telemarketer to prostitute to firefighter to newsgirl to cleaning woman. Though perhaps the workers don't care for the lifestyles or jobs they have, the play stresses that hard work of any kind will give future generations better lives.
Good message, but what about the cleaning woman who doesn't make enough money, so her daughter also has to work a blue-collar job when she grows up? What about the mill worker who's left with arthritis? The underpaid theatre critic? Or the prostitute who will never know true love?
The writers have a good concept - that people should be proud of what they do. But it raises so many questions. Aren't some kinds of "work" more admirable or valuable than others? The writers seem to think every construction worker should have a plaque with his or her name on the building, but what about the housewife, whose clean dishes, folded clothes, and hot meals are the physical but temporary evidence of her hard work? Should everyone really be defined by what they do for a living? Is the prostitute really accepted on the same social/political level as the ironworker or the schoolteacher?
But the play isn't interested in those nuances. The authors also sanitized a few of the jobs. The stonemason, for example, says he "dreams about stone." Maybe he's just an energetic guy, but it seemed like the character was glossing over the extreme labor he endures everyday for the sake of the "audience."
Everyone has worked and therefore can relate to this play in some way, but every person's story is different. That's why this kind of show is very difficult to pull off. The process of "universalizing" the characters robs them of their uniqueness; they each lose a sense of "self" as an individual, and therefore appear less than three-dimensional.
Perhaps with a few more genuine numbers like the housewife's song and less-forced transitions, Working could really work.