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.
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.
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.
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
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)