When one considers the types of instruments best suited to playing love songs, one probably doesn't think of accordions as a likely prospect. Aren't most of us familiar enough with the sounds they make to easily discount them as being capable of conveying as complex an emotion as love?
To Ann Randolph, when an accordion is in the right hands, it can produce ballads as lush and romantic as the finest string quartet, as if an entire symphony orchestra is housed within that single instrument. Even more surprising than Randolph's admitting she feels this way is that by the end of her one-woman play Squeeze Box, which is now having its New York premiere at the Acorn Theater after its auspicious 2002 Los Angeles debut, is that she'll have you believing it as well.
Though the accordionist with whom Randolph falls in love (his name is Harold) plays a vital role in her life, the play she wrote and stars in is a moving, laugh-out-loud chronicle of her own journey from despair to redemption, detailing how she discovered her own necessary - and admirable - contributions to the human race. They were mostly made through her work at a Los Angeles women's homeless shelter, where she made her presence felt in ways direct and subtle: her patience, her compassion, her willingness to bend the rules for the women so they could live a better life.
She gave them everything she could and believed, for a while, that she was getting in return what she needed for her spiritual health. But as the years slogged on, and her own economic situation grew more volatile, she began to experience a crisis of faith regarding her abilities to make a difference, make a living, and succeed as a person. She realized with some shock that, when she most needed it, no one was present to help her, and abandoned her job and the women depending on her in order to undertake a quest to ease her own emotional homelessness.
If it all sounds like serious stuff - it is. Through her piercingly honest story, Randolph depicts the difficult inner conflict experienced by someone who's helped countless others at the expense of herself. That anger and pain are prevalent through every moment of the show; unafraid to make herself unsympathetic, Randolph lays her own faults bare and presents a gentle but firm reminder of the flaws and humanity within the most apparently gracious of souls.
Though Randolph doesn't come to the realization of her importance until late in the evening, when she's gotten what she thinks she's wanted and then must pay the consequences, her journey is never a depressing or dispiriting one. She's blessed with a natural gift for humor that allows her to find moments of surprising levity in even the most sorrowful and apparently hopeless of circumstances, and she points these up whenever the opportunities arise.
That's most frequently done through her impressions; she's sharply defined each of the dozen or so characters in her story, and moves between them with but small adjustments to her body and voice. When she crooks two fingers and leans back, she's Brandy, a street-wise, smart-aleckey, yet sensitive homeless woman; a flip of a barrette turns her into an overeager Bible-thumping shelter worker; slightly more rounded tones and shoulders result in the laid-back, inspirational Harold. Randolph is so likeable, so believable in all these guises, that it's not long before you feel strongly for each of the people she evokes.
Even so, it seems as if the production strives for an emptier, starker feel than what might be ideal; the only objects accompanying Randolph onstage are the guitar and banjo she'll pick up and play at opportune moments. Adam Bailey's direction and Jonathan Spencer's lights seem determined to narrow the focus on Randolph as much as possible, rather than allowing her to expand to fill the theater. Surely they can't themselves lack faith in their star's ability to make the evening both plausible and enjoyable on her own?
If that's the case, it's one Randolph, through her charmingly clever and specific characterizations, is determined to dispel. She does a masterful job of it, too, so efficiently spinning an intricate web of stories and personalities that we never feel as if we're missing the full contextual impact of the events surrounding her. That's not easy to achieve, but Randolph makes it look effortless.
That's an important part of the magic of theatre, fashioning a complex dramatic construct in a way all but undetectable to the audience. It's quite similar to the work Randolph undertook, attempting to bring a simple sort of peace to people most desperately in need of it. Both these messages come through loud and clear in Squeeze Box and, as was the accordion to Randolph, they're beautiful music to our ears.