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Can You Hear Their Voices?

Peculiar Works Project's revival of Hallie Flanagan and Margaret Ellen Clifford's play which contrasts struggling farmers and a rich senator and his wife could use a greater sense of style.

Derek Jamison, Tonya Canada, and Rebecca Servon
in Can You Hear Their Voices?
(© Jim Baldassare)
There's a refreshingly -- and appropriate -- homespun quality to the Peculiar Works Project's revival of Hallie Flanagan and Margaret Ellen Clifford's Can You Hear Their Voices?, currently running in a site-specific production in a converted storefront space in NoHo.

The venue, along with directors Ralph Lewis and Barry Rowell's staging, certainly makes one feel as if one has been transported back to a time when small groups would gather in such places to not only create theater, but also to discuss their political ideals and formulate their activist plans. Yet even as theatergoers appreciate the sense of recreated verity in the production, it's difficult to not wish that it were tempered with more discipline and a greater sense of style.

Based on a short story by communist Whittaker Chambers, Voices alternates between scenes set in Arkansas where farmers are struggling with not only the onset of the Depression, but also a severe drought that has left their land useless and their animals dying; and ones in Washington DC, where a senator and his wife are planning a lavish (to the tune of $250,000) coming-out party for their daughter. Given the contrast between despair and extravagance, theatergoers instantly understand why many of the farmers are talking about the virtues of socialism and scoffing at their friends and relatives who urge restraint while maintaining that "we got a government in back of us."

The production switches between these locations with relative ease thanks to Nikolay Levin's modular scenic design, and as the play progresses, the actors grab their needed props from shelves just behind the audience and don costumes hanging from racks in a back corner. It's theater with a message created on the fly, supported admirably by polished work from lighting designer David Castaneda and Seth Bedford's haunting original music.

Unfortunately, the performances in Voices are often as obvious as much of the production's stagecraft, which only emphasizes the piece's polemics at the cost of the play's drama, which, admittedly, is slim. There are certain sparks in the actors' work which ameliorates some of the didacticism. Notably, Patricia Drozda, in one of the production's few lucid gender-blind casting choices, brings arrogant fire to the role of Purcell, the man who owns the land the tenant farmers till.

Catherine Porter delivers a surprisingly understated performance as Ann, a farmer's wife who's hoping that her predictions of government support will come true for her husband and small boys. Derek Jamison has true passion as one of the farmers, but he also must inexplicably play one of the debutantes at the fete in DC. Fine work, too, comes from Rebecca Servon and Sarah Elizondo, who give performances that blend presentational and naturalistic styles with grace.