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United Cab 

The sign outside the storefront on Magazine Street says Transport Workers Union Hall. Some guys are hanging around on the sidewalk, asking folks if they came for the meeting. Inside, the place is simple but clean and inviting. Some folding chairs are set up on either side of an open center space. Lights in metal shades hang from the ceiling.

A vague conflict is unfolding on the "stage" and around the front door. A man in a sports jacket and tie, who seems both authoritative and unpopular, is at odds with the worker types who comprise most of the gathering. A bodyguard -- who keeps his hand menacingly tucked into a pocket of his trench coat as though wrapped around a gun -- lurks close to this man and keeps him safely isolated.

The workers are members of the taxi cab union's local chapter and know each other. At one point, two women arrive, apparently with their husbands, and fall into lavishing compliments on each other.

Cripple Creek's recent production Waiting for Lefty by Clifford Odets began with this improvised environmental run-up to the play. It was a tad drawn-out. Maybe the troupe had to wait until a full audience arrived, but that's a quibble. I have few other complaints about this fascinating drama. A socially conscious play from 1935 about a taxi cab union deciding whether or not to go on strike, however, had not filled me with eager anticipation.

Basically, the guys from the local don't want to start the meeting until their leader Lefty shows up. Does his nickname refer to the hand he writes with or is it a clue to his political leanings? Maybe both. In any case, we come to realize Mr. Fatt (Dennis McCann), the man in the sports jacket, is from the central union command. He clearly wants to discourage the local chapter from going on strike. One of his tactics is to brand the pro-strikers as "reds." He launches into wild, horrifying descriptions of what the reds do when they take over. Curiously, the reds, if in fact there are any in the room, seem normal and peaceable enough. It is Fatt who gives off a fierce vibe, not to mention his bodyguard (Freddie Young), whose ferocity can barely be contained. In what seems insignificant but turns out to be of key importance, Fatt insists they stop waiting for Lefty and start the meeting.

The basic scene has now been set. In the union hall, we will witness the struggle of the pro-strike and anti-strike forces. There is, however, a creepy undertow, as "the powers that be" work their schemes to break the workers' solidarity. Not only is Fatt suspect with his strong anti-strike rhetoric, but he produces a worker, reputedly from Philadelphia where there was a recent taxi strike. This worker speaks out against striking. However, he is exposed as a union breaker who has traveled far and wide plying his treacherous trade with the support, it is assumed, of the bosses.

The play does not remain in the union hall. Instantaneously and without the addition of furniture or props, we are whisked to various workers' homes or other important places in their private lives. There we see the price they are paying for the miserable wages they have to bring home to the women in their lives. Joe (Blake Baudier), for example, is fiery and bold in the union hall, but at home, his wife Edna (Emilie Whelan) launches into a heartfelt tirade and threatens to leave him because of the humiliation of their poverty. Sid (Sean Mellott) and Florrie (Leah Wingate), on the other hand, are not married. They have been engaged for years. But now is the moment when Sid finally gives up the dream of marriage -- again because of poverty. Here, the woman's part is not explosive outrage but a remarkable sensitivity of reaction.

So the drama goes back and forth between the union hall and the wider world of the workers' lives. We get a sense of the pressures they are under and why they are willing to take the dangerous, costly step of a strike.

The culmination of this struggle comes when one of the workers finds Lefty's corpse. The implication is that he was murdered. In anger and defiance, the workers call for a strike.

A tip of the hat goes to director Andrew Vaught and the fine cast he assembled for this rarely seen play. Others in the cast -- Charles Vaught, David Glasser, Greg Hall, J. R. Fader, Philip Yiannopoulos and T. J. Toups -- helped create a convincing reality, so the audience saw normal people struggling with believable problems rather than an agit-prop morality play.

click to enlarge In Waiting for Lefty, a group of cab drivers waits for a meeting at their union hall.
  • In Waiting for Lefty, a group of cab drivers waits for a meeting at their union hall.


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