Upcoming Projects
Film Work
Theater Videos
e-mail me


Joe Hill's Last Will Poster.jpg

‘Joe Hill’s Last Will’ is a powerhouse production

By Ben Siegel

Updated Sun, Nov 08, 2015 12:01 AM EST

The Subversive Theatre Collective celebrates ten years of its annual Workers’ Power Play Series with a powerhouse production that’s sure to be talked about all season long.

John Profeta stars in Si Kahn’s “Joe Hill’s Last Will,” a one-hander that feels more solitary than most solo shows. It spends 90 continuous minutes with Hill in his jail cell, his last hour and a half before being executed by firing squad. Hill, a real-life figure who a hundred years ago was tried and convicted of killing a Salt Lake City store owner and his son, was better known for his labor-union organizing and protest songs. By many accounts, and by his own word, Hill did not commit these murders. This doesn’t matter, of course. It was his execution, in 1915, that encapsulated the tragic flaws in the industrial-capitalist model, in corrupt government, in immigration politics, and in the almighty American Dream.

Hill’s groundwork for the Industrial Workers of the World, or IWW, gave him the platform to speak to the plight of all workers, in all industries. A Swedish immigrant, he was a man for all people, and understood the interconnectedness with other civil-rights causes, and of the racist and xenophobic attitudes many in the country had toward the immigrants, who made up the majority of workers at the time.

Of course, these aren’t old concerns. If Hill were alive for today’s presidential debates, we might never hear the end of his tune. The irony of Hill’s protest songs, of course, is that they’re prettier than they should be. New lyrics were often written on top of known melodies, making it easier to spread the word among protesters. But they were written for tactical use and not for the ages. These were songs written out of necessity, for survival and courage and strength and more.

This play’s monologue is rife with Hill’s music, thank goodness. It is one of the ways in which Kahn saves this conventional, rhetorical narrative device from itself. Despite the trappings of this “pull up a seat, let me tell you a story” framework, Kahn writes with an eloquent rhythm. Profeta is so keen on these layers, too, as is director Jeffrey Coyle, whose own performance style is apparent in some of the actor’s nuances; a knowing glance and lingering eye drop in at just the right half-moments.

The beauty in Profeta’s performance is how it builds. We begin in a stark place, this Salt Lake City jail cell. Coyle’s set design is both intimate and cold, and is peppered with painted phrases from Hill’s writings, an ornament I’d not usually care for but which here reinforces the mindset of a writer facing his own death, his words both entrapping and freeing him. Profeta releases us from this prison cell, though, taking us to places more romantic and picturesque than this concrete and these bars would suggest was possible. He is effortlessly physical, not just in expository movement, but in subtle gestures.

As if he had much competition to begin with, it’s hard to not stare at him, lest you miss a wink or nod. At some point, you might notice the subtlety of Hill’s Swedish accent, laying low on Profeta’s tongue as if a constant reminder of his birthright, but always shrouded by an adopted American tongue.

Michael Lodick’s magnificent lighting plays a big role. This space could easily be lit by a single light bulb, its loneliness being certainly effective. But this is not just a history play, but also a fantasy play. Lodick sweeps us away to the past, as told from Hill’s gut, and teases from the future, mocked by outside light. Coyle and Lodick paint a number of different pictures here, resuscitating this space every chance the story lets it. Maureen Denton’s costumes, too, are a highlight.

And in the corner of the stage, on the other side of these prison bars, sits a nameless figure, her face shielded by a shadow and perched hat. In a practical context, she is Kathleen Godwin, accompanying Profeta on a variety of beautiful guitars and in one brief and stirring dramatic scene. (Profeta plays a standard acoustic, too, and not unwell, though it comes off as more of a prop than primary instrumentation. Musical director Billy Horn sets a fine balance between the two.) Godwin is Profeta’s backup, sure, and plays with depth and personality, but she is more than that. By the play’s end, when Hill addresses the rhetorical question of his legacy on this, his last day, her music retorts: But who will sing your songs?

3 1/2 stars (Out of four)