If great characters are the foundation on which great dramas are built, then Los Angeles-based playwright Doris Baizley hit bedrock when she stumbled upon Agnes Smedley (SusanBarnes).
Smedley was a Missouri farm-girl-turned-radical-journalist who spent the early 1900s churning out socialist literature and championing the cause of birth control. In 1929 she traveled to China to follow the communist uprising and, later, to work on a biography of Mao’s military chief of staff, Chu Teh (Ernest Abuba).
As portrayed in “Agnes Smedley: Our American Friend,” she matured into a sort of Sino-American Annie Oakley: Anything Chu could do, she could do better.
Smedley’s sometimes sharp, sometimes tender exchanges with Chu form the backbone of Baizley’s compact and engaging play. As the general recounts the hardships of his childhood, Smedley is reminded of episodes from her own poverty-stricken past (dramatized with the aid of Jeanne Sakata and David Mong in multiple roles).
Slowly, Smedley comes to believe they have ledparallel lives and that their kinship proves the viability of an international brotherhood and sisterhood of the underclass.
The role of Smedley is a plum Barnes sinks her teeth into with obvious gusto. She finds just the right combination of swagger, charm and naive idealism, looking equally comfortable leading her communist comrades in a Virginia Reel and spouting socialist dogma.
And Abuba comports himself with the restraint appropriate to a passionate man who has married himself to the communist cause.
It’s unusual to see a play that deals so seriously and yet so concisely with weighty political ideas. From lights up to final blackout, “Agnes” runs a fast 90 intermissionless minutes.
If the play has a fault, it’s that Baizley tries to cover too much biographical territory in such a short time. It’s as though she didn’t want to leave out one juicy bit. Smedley’slife was a virtual who’s who (and where’s where) of 20th century radicalism, orbiting around John Reed, Emma Goldman, Margaret Sanger and Mao Tse-tung. As a result, despite director Steven E. Alter’s brisk pacing, the play occasionally lags under the weight of its exposition.
Still, every time the action threatens to bog down in storytelling, Baizley tosses us a bit of Smedley’s homespun Missouri spunk to pick up the pace again.
At the end, after we’ve witnessed the journalist’s long illness and death, we’re left with her square-dance instructions echoing in our ears: “Take the hand of the person next to you; always believe the caller no matter what he says; if you get lost, keep moving forward; be bold in executing all calls; and always keep your head raised.” They’re the watchwords of a larger-than-life character who very nearly bursts the seams of this small-scale, finely wrought play.