Review (#2 of 2): POSTVILLE by Don Fried, Last Act Theater Company
by Brian Paul Scipione
Finding Heart in America’s Heartland
The opening scene is quaint, peaceful and idyllic: a café on a nearly deserted main street of small town America. The locals slowly occupy the rocking chairs and tiny tables waiting both patiently and impatiently for the succor of their morning coffees. The inevitable weather conversations begin along with a re-hash of the past year’s events. Past year because it seems only a few events happen a year here. A dusty stranger appears asking for directions to the office of The Ledger, what passes for the local paper. The second-hand has ticked away another spec of time but their world is now completely different.
They tell the stranger if your parents haven’t been here for 130-plus years you are suspect, and yet he is nothing more than a visiting journalist who has somehow scented a killer story moments before its inception. He’s come to talk to the editor of The Ledger about some recent article she has published as ‘filler’ for her paper that she dared title with a headline worthy of the Enquirer or TMZ. He is the first stranger to ramble up their streets in months, maybe years. The next strangers, a group of Hasidic Jews from New York City seeking to buy a now defunct meat packing factory, are the ones about to turn the town upon its head both economically and culturally.
Postville is a play by Don Fried inspired by the true story of strangers in a strange land captured in Stephen G. Bloom's book Postville: A Clash of Culture in Heartland America. The story is such a classic juxtaposition that the characters of the play become almost self-referential when the journalist refers to the dispute between the locals and the foreigners as a new version of an old Western movie. Ray the local misanthrope immediately shoots back that in those movies the bad guys always wore the black hats blatantly referencing the black hats worn by Hasidim.
Ray’s animosity is a driving force of the play’s plot line. At the beginning he savagely complains that he is broke because the town is poor and the economy is bad and the weather is not too his liking -- and on and on -- but when the re-opening of the factory brings money and jobs he finds reasons not to like that either. He is not the only one. The town’s mayor and the newspaper editor remain cautious at every step. They want badly for the Hasidim to like them and integrate into the town. There is a hilarious scene early in the play when the town’s welcoming committee extends an initial olive branch to the strangers. Right as the scene opens we see a giant banner that proclaims “Welcome Jews!” -- a delightful gaffe on the part of the locals.They have already labeled the newcomers and put them in a box different from their own. Why not welcome them as strangers or entrepreneurs or new friends? The scene continues with the locals repeatedly exposing the distance between themselves and the new arrivals , provoking increasing mirth. These are brilliantly written comedic scenes by Fried, adroitly performed by the cast.
Overall this production seems to highlight more of the cartoonish or parodic side of the story’s construction. There are many hot-button topics in the play’s story line: gender roles in religious marriages, exploitation of illegal immigrants, ex-husbands dodging alimony, religious fervor vs. cultural integration. They're referenced repeatedly but not fully explored. This is reasonable because the play straddles the line between comedy and drama. Most of the action takes place offstage, and the characters gather in front of cafes and inside restaurants to discuss it. Ray’s shouting and huffing is in contrast to the calm of the factory owners, until near the end of the play when Avram begins to raise his voice back and locks eyes with Ray in an icy stare down. The East European immigrant Voydan clowns his way through the action, singing out of tune and trying to sell products out of a bag, bringing to mind Amway products and other crackpot pyramid schemes that draw in the naïve.
The two most compelling story lines in the play include marginalized women who represent different strata of society: Chanah, a business woman trapped in a loveless marriage in a town of hostile locals, and Arcadia, an undocumented Central American immigrant working 16 hours a day for a pittance wage, in the same town of hostile locals. Their stories both are only afforded a few short scenes, just enough to reveal what they are going through.
Chanah’s story differs in that the more she reaches out to the local female population (notably by being more generous with her resources then her ilk), the more she is accepted and supported. Her husband keeps turning up and entreating her to return home: His tactics seem to lean more on her cultural responsibilities then any love she may still have for him. Arcadia’s story ends much more tragically. Detained by the U.S. government, she is forced to wait seventy-one days to testify against Avram the factory owner, after which she will be abruptly deported. She protests firmly and loudly that she does not want to testify against Avram, as he done more for her then was possible in her home country. He has given her an opportunity and paid her a fair wage. Earlier we witnessed his generosity in paying for medical supplies for her father back home.
The contention that the Hasidim are cheap is thoroughly undermined at this point. Avram explains it best: “Bargaining is part of our culture!” They are happy to help — they just want to be treated fairly.
Fair treatment ends up being the theme of the story. Almost no one feels like they have been treated fairly, even though almost everyone’s life has been improved by the re-opening of the factory. The reason for this is also clearly elucidated by Fried’s skillful play crafting.No matter what cabal you belong to, the whole rigmarole remains an Us vs. Them affair. The lines of the play reflect this poignantly at every step:
“We just wanted you to talk to them, not become one of them.”
“You people, I don’t know what to call you.”
“Immigrants are supposed to start at the bottom of the ladder.”
“Let me tell you something, Mr. Switzerland, all of them are after all of us.”
This play’s subject matter is uncannily timely in the current political landscape where people are throwing up their hands in utter exasperation. Some are absolutely sure of this candidate and others are equally sure of the other candidate, and then there’s a third faction who don’t want to play at all because they don’t agree with the rules of the game. Everyone seems to be missing the human factor and reducing real lives and dreams to statistics. Postville is a very American story with a very real origin in America’s heartland. The actors, the sound and stage crew, the designers and the director, have given it a beautiful and brief life in the auditorium of the Trinity Street Theatre. Do not miss it.
[CTXLT cover photo: Robert Stevens, Beau Paul, Laurie Coker. Photo by Rachel Steed for Last Act Theatre Company.)
July 29 - August 14, 2016
Black Box Theatre, 4th floor, First Baptist Church
901 Trinity Street
Austin, TX, 78701
Thursdays - Sundays; more to be announced by Last Act Theatre Company (March 24, 2016)