Ann Randolph in Squeeze Box(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Ann Randolph in Squeeze Box
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Ann Randolph, a bean pole of a woman in slacks and a short-sleeve blouse, tells a hardscrabble story in her solo show Squeeze Box. It seems the time that Randolph has put in as a counselor at a shelter for homeless women led her to question her commitment and then to rededicate herself to it. That's the length and breadth of her 70-minute outpouring.

Familiar with a meager bank account herself, Randolph mentions at the get-go that she's just one step ahead of her charges. She even speculates that their upgrade to subsidized apartment living puts them at an advantage over her and she suggests that, in the long run, she might be better off as a client rather than a low-salaried worker. It's a wry observation as well as a sad commentary on the way we live now. It's also typical of Randolph's fairly light-hearted approach to her chock-full autobiography and to the often less than glamorous world of social work. Describing some of the people with whom she traffics and her eventual disenchantment with them, she reports that she eventually quit her job to look for something better. She gets laughs when she says that the post she abandoned would very likely be there any time she wanted to reclaim it.

Among the women at the shelter (and outside it) whom she recalls is Brandy, a chain-smoking truth-teller who eventually comes to represent the pluses and minuses of toiling in Randolph's chosen field. There's also a chum whose life is constantly being changed by whatever experience she had the night before. Incidentally, the title Squeeze Box not only refers to Ann's potential boyfriend Harold, an accordion player, but also has sexual connotations. (Randolph is not embarrassed about her search for downtime pleasure.)

Wary of telling men what she does for a living -- she's posted a profile on Match.com -- Randolph is vague about it, saying only that "consulting" is how she earns her pay. She eventually gets the attention of accordionist-composer Harold, who's so smitten that he composes some music for and about her. The piece is introed at a concert where the now career-hunting Ann reconnects with her sheltered past. Brandy crashes an after-party in an unusually visible way and causes Ann to review her decisions in a manner that won't be divulged here; suffice to say that Ann has been bucking herself up with a "you can do it" mantra and that Brandy makes her take a more serious look at the repeated affirmation.

Randolph, who speaks with a rural accent and occasionally trips over syllables in longer words, is an amusing woman with a nice gift for mimicry. Recounting her tale of woe and work, she impersonates -- at least for a minute or two each -- a dozen characters other than herself by changing the hang of her long hair and altering her voice. (Rod Menzies is billed as the vocal coach.) She also picks up and strums two musical instruments. Randolph is a hoot as a lesbian at a hootenanny, battering a banjo and singing a tuneless folk anthem.

While there's no reason to doubt the veracity of Randolph's story of loss and redemption, it may be that she's filed a few sharp edges from it. Her return to the shelter after she bumps into Brandy seems a mite tidy, as does the upbeat ending that she puts on her saga. It would be a cynic, indeed, who accused her of overstating her devotion to what has to be demanding, often unrewarding work. It usually takes a formidable calling for someone to tend to the underprivileged, a group of people swelled by many schizophrenics. Yet Randolph's confessions have about them something of a sentimentalized air; "Their progress is my progress," she declares beatifically as she's winding things up. Now that standing ovations are a dime a dozen, a viewer may get the feeling that those who leap to their feet at Randolph's curtain call are eager to applaud someone doing work that they'd never choose to do themselves. "Bravo, surrogate," they seem to be hailing.

Squeeze Box has the formula look of today's one-person enterprises, which isn't necessarily Randolph's fault. (The appeal to backers of monologues is their low-budget potential.) The stage is virtually bare. Much is accomplished by shrewdly varied lighting -- the designer is Jonathan Spencer -- and there's all manner of movement. Directed by Alan Bailey, perhaps with the help a metronome, Randolph rarely stands still for longer than a paragraph. Now she's standing downstage, now she's seated upstage for a minute or less, now she's leaning over. The impression given is that if she merely sat on a stool and narrated her experiences, ticket-buyers might not think they were getting their money's worth.

But they would be. In Squeeze Box, which was produced by Anne Bancroft, Randolph takes up an unexpected subject and discusses it cogently and personally. She makes scratchy, socially committed music.