The Peculiar Works Project gets high marks for research and a flunking grade for presentation.
If “Can You Hear Their Voices?” were the undergraduate production it plays like, the Peculiar Works Project would get high marks for research and a flunking grade for presentation. Source of this docu-drama about a grassroots uprising of Arkansas farmers during a 1931 drought was a factual story by Whittaker Chambers that ran in “The New Masses.” As adapted by theater legend Hallie Flanagan and one of her Vassar students, it foreshadowed the Living Newspaper productions that defined Flanagan’s political agenda as head of the Federal Theater Project. As it was during the Depression, the raw material is dynamite.
In an attempt to humanize the horrific conditions that incite a desperate mob of farmers to organize an armed raid on a Red Cross supply depot, the playwrights have created a cross-section of the Haves and Have-nots who live in a drought-stricken farm town. The Haves are represented by the privileged families of bankers, landowners and their elected Congressman, who drink Champagne and party (in Deb O’s attractive period costumes). Meanwhile, the Have-nots stoically agonize over their lost crops and dying livestock.
The writing is blunt and the characterizations none too subtle. Nonetheless, a few strong scenes play out on Jim (Christopher Hurt) and Ann (Catherine Porter) Wardell’s back porch, where the neighbors gather to listen to the radio. Hearing the hollow speeches emanating from the Hoover White House, it’s no wonder that the bravest and angriest among the suffering farmers find their political voice in the Socialist principles of Marxist Communism.
Co-helmers Ralph Lewis and Barry Rowell honor the agitprop spirit of the Federal Theater by setting the drama against a backdrop of digital projections depicting authentic scenes of Depression-era misery. Unfortunately, these vintage visuals (the excellent contribution of Matthew Tennie) are so powerfully real that they make the amateurish live performances look foolish.
Although Hurt and Porter lend a little dignity to the Wardells, Peculiar Works’ color-blind, gender-blind and age-blind casting policy diminishes the play by giving a motley group of performers the license to dress up in costume and show off their lack of professionalism. Nor does the so-called “site-specific” location of the show — a nondescript storefront space wedged between the toes of the overbearing NYU footprint in Noho — have anything to do with destitute farmers or Depression-era theater.