‘Waiting for Lefty’: 16 powerful performers bring life to Odets’ classic

When Clifford Odets wrote “Waiting for Lefty”, what would become one of his most famous works, the world was a very different place, but when we see it today, it’s obvious a few things still hold true. It’s with this belief in mind that director Benjamin Summers, and the fine crew at Street Corner Arts, bring Austin audiences this classic work, along with sixteen actors, a boatload of righteous anger, and a powerful message about the power of the worker. Though the piece runs a lean hour, there are moments that stick with you long after, seeping into your very person.

“Waiting for Lefty” takes us to 1935, in the midst of the depression, where a group of workers, ranging from doctors to cab drivers, are meeting up to discuss whether or not they should strike. Along the way, we’re given glimpses into the lives of several of the people in the meeting, from a surgeon forced out of a job when his clinic is closed down, to a cab driver on the verge of losing his wife and kids when the money doesn’t come. Odets has given a wide spectrum of workers and lifestyles here, and we get a glimpse of just how diverse the problems were in that age, and how any of those problems still exist today.

A cast of 16 can be a beast to wrangle, but it’s amazing not just how well some actors are able to step up to the plate for their individual performances, but how well they work together. Since the play is based around a Labor meeting, the group dynamic is paramount, and throughout the play it feels like a lively ruckus, roaring with energy. Watching the actors react to each other is one of the highlights of the piece, and when all 16 actors take the stage come play’s end, you might just be dumbstruck at the sheer powerful presence on display.

Most Austinites are familiar with Michael Stuart in more quiet, low-key roles, so when he comes out in “Waiting for Lefty”, bolting on to the scene like a bullet from a gun, he’s almost unrecognizable. He carries himself with a bravura and passion that’s such a surprise, showing just how versatile an actor he really is. Even when he’s not taking center stage, he disappears into his character, his disapproving sneer never leaving is face, until it’s replaced by his look of rage and shock in later stages. It’s another page in the impressive catalog of Michael Stuart performances, and one that will stick me for some time.

Though the men hold their own throughout, the woman make a serious statement of their own in “Waiting for Lefty.” Katie Kohler, who comes off a revelatory introductory performance in Hyde Park Theatre’s “Bright New Boise”, gives a nuanced, but emotionally satisfying performance as a woman stuck on the horns of a major ethical dilemma forced to make a touch decision. Molly Fonseca brings her trademark power and gravitas to her small, but memorable performance as the wife of a cab driver forced in a corner by the difficult of the depression.

“Waiting for Lefty” may present the largest number of actors ever to grace an Austin stage, and the fact they perform so admirably is truly a testament to the skill of director Benjamin Summers. Though this may still be the early stages of Street Corner Arts life cycle, one can tell they have a promising road in front of them, and a track record that even some of the larger companies would die for.

“Waiting for Lefty” runs roughly an hour with no intermission, and is playing at Hyde Park Theatre through December 20. For more information, and to purchase tickets, visit streetcornerarts.org

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