Joy comes from a number of places. Nostalgia, while not joyful in and of itself, can bring a certain quiet excitement. Especially for a time long removed, a time before cell phones, before constant Internet access, before 24-hour news cycles. A time when people hitchhiked around the country and made ends meet by picking apricots at orchards they found along the way. Or perhaps peaches. Perhaps apples. For those living in this time, joyful moments were few and far between — this is not how most people want to live. But for those inundated by small boxy screens and glowing lights, it can seem almost divine.
Woody Sez: The Life and Music of Woody Guthrie marries these two worlds for an hour and a half, as writer and star David M. Lutken brings his audience along the life of famed folk musician Woody Guthrie.
Guthrie, an Oklahoma native best known for “This Land is Your Land” and for being one of Bob Dylan’s biggest inspirations, came up during the Great Depression and traveled around the country, sympathizing with unions and singing story-songs about their plights. Lutken offers a full biopic, from six-year-old Guthrie learning to play guitar to an early grave.
Theater J’s stage is set sparsely: merely an unchanging backdrop depicting a dying crop field and a few photos of Guthrie. Instruments litter the stage, everything from acoustic guitars to upright bass. And before the play begins, Lutken, Darcie Deaville, David Finch and Helen Russell — the entire cast — are casually hanging out, playing a few tunes and setting the stage for an informal evening.
The play (though I hesitate to call it a play as it feels more like a concert) follows a simple but effective structure. The four, in varying arrangements, play thirty-two songs and/or single verses from songs. In between each, Lutken, playing Guthrie throughout, offers narration about the next step in Guthrie’s life. The crew then plays a song exemplifying that time. Between songs, the other three castmembers play varying roles.
We’re treated to some of the finest folk music that’s likely to be found in the area. Lutken offers a pitch-perfect Guthrie impression, even while narrating. He can jig with the best of them, and his feet are often dancing about wildly as he plays the acoustic guitar he keeps strapped around him.
The narration is informal, mostly Lutken simply telling the audience (in Guthrie’s voice) what happens next. It’s not dramatized by any means, but that fits with Guthrie’s own philosophy. No bells and whistles, just the truth.
Finch, who will be replaced on Nov. 20, shows an incredibly diverse range of skills, playing everything (with breathtaking precision) from his favored banjo, to the fiddle to some silverware (though I won’t ruin that particular surprise).
Russell, in an old floor-length dress, seems most at home on her upright bass, and Deaville, wearing the same, offers a complementary female vocal counterpart to Lutken’s Guthrie.
As the four tear through song after song, from “Gypsy Davey” to “Jackhammer John” to “Talkin’ Dust Bowl,” Guthrie’s life and career begin to unfold.
Woody Sez: The Life and Music of Woody Guthrie
Closes December 2, 2-12
1529 Sixteenth Street, NW
2 hours with 1 intermission
Tuesdays thru Sundays
We see his mother slowly lose her mind to the hereditary Huntington’s Disease that eventually takes Guthrie’s own life. We see him lose a sister and later a daughter in two different fires. We see him lose a wife and a first family to his wanderlust, and we see him earn a job at a leftist paper in Los Angeles. We see him sleeping outdoors, hitchhiking across the country and finding himself as an angrier and angrier malcontent.
Yet, it’s a joyful play. While the audience sings along to popular tunes like “This Train is Bound for Glory,” the recurring reprise, there isn’t a tear in the room. Which is, after all, the gift of music. It’s the gift Guthrie wanted to give.
It should be noted this is very much a play for lovers of folk music. About 90 percent of it involves listening to four musicians having fun playing that particular genre.
Every Sunday following the play, the cast will hold a small gathering in the Jewish Community Center, where the theatre is located. Here, they’ll play songs by request and invite anyone and everyone to bring along their own instruments to join the fun. This music’s for everybody.
Just as Woody would have wanted.
Woody Sez: The Life and Music of Woody Guthrie . Devised by David M. Lutken with Nick Corley, Darice Deaville, Helen Jean Russell and Andy Teirstein . Directed by Nick Corley. Set Design by Luke Hegel-Cantarella . Costume Design by Jeffrey Meek . Presented by Theater J . Reviewed by Travis M. Andrews