Neal Bell's On the Bum or The Next Train Through is an Intriguing Drama of the '30s American Depression
Bell's sardonic comedy premiered at Playwrights Horizons in New York in November 1992 where it received excellent reviews. The play reminds me of those great 1930s soul-searching plays by Clifford Odets and Eugene O'Neill. On the Bum is about the turbulent period when many unemployed actors were starving, and a dinner meal was a glass of hot water with ketchup from the tables at the Automat. The drama is also about how the New Deal's NRA came to their aid, with government money for unemployed actors to present plays to lift up the spirits of the American people. I remember being in grade school and seeing several of the NRA plays in about our country town in Ohio.
On the Bum opens with actors Eleanor (Caroline Sharman) and Archie (Julian Stetkevych) on a stage in Manhattan speaking in the over-the-top drawl of country farmers from the Midwest. Their show collapses due to money problems and Eleanor lands a job through the Federal Theatre Project to travel to Bumfork, a tiny town that could be in Southern Missouri or Arkansas. Most of the people are unemployed by the depression and it is hoped that a play written by Jessie Mae Burst (Ann Farrar), a stuffy local authoress, will give them hope for the future. She has written a ludicrous verse play about the true story of a dam breaking, causing the great flood that drowned 1000 persons fifty years prior called The Flood.
Eleanor has no money to get to Bumfork, so she hops a train dressed as a young boy. She meets some suspicious tramps and angry railroad cops along the way but finally arrives at her destination without a nickel in her pocket. The pageant is is being directed by the pretentious Gil (Allison Youngberg), who has roles for 12 persons. Unfortunately, only two other actors - the unemployed clown Harry (Andrew McClain) and Norma (Jamila Webb), a failed early talkie actress - show up to present the play, which must receive approval from the arts section of the NRA. The Flood includes poor imitations of rhyming couplets that could have come from the Pyramus and Thisbe play in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. Those scenes are uproarious as the actors attempt the ridiculous dialogue by the local playwright.
Eleanor meets and falls in love with Frank (David Gross), an out of work, unhappily married man who is disillusioned with the world around him. He informs Eleanor that there is more to the dam breaking 50 years prior. The truth comes out that this was not an act of God but the fault of greedy fat cats who built the dam. Oskar (Joel Rainwater), a somewhat mentally disturbed local man, also knows the real reason of the catastrophe and has a play that will tell all. However, NRA play inspector (Julian Stetkevych) does not want to present a play with "Communist" overtones so once again truth is squashed.
Neal Bell has the idiomatic American speech of this Midwestern town down pat. There are clashing styles of rhetoric that are a pleasure to the ear. This is a fantastically acted play by these young performers, who will go on to film or theatre after graduation this year. Caroline Sharman gives an insightful performance as the unemployed actress Eleanor, and David Gross is commanding in his role of the unemployed Frank. Andrew McClain as Harry and Jamila Webb as Norma are excellent. McClain looks like a young Tom Hanks and is very personable on stage. Webb gives a powerful performance as a street smart actress who has seen it all. Joel Rainwater is very good as Oskar and gives a stirring speech about freedom to express the truth toward the end of the comedy drama.
Julian Stetkevych, Allison Youngberg, Nina Freeman, Deontay Wilson, Puja Lamalini, Ann Farrar, Morgan Spector and G.D. Kimble all are effective in various roles. Sheryl Kaller helms this fine group of young actors on a somewhat bare wooden stage that looks like an NRA production during those turbulent waning days of the depression.
On the Bum or The Next Train Through plays through March 18th at the Zeum Theater at 4th and Howard Street, San Francisco. Ca. For ticket please call 415-749-2ACT or visit www.act.org.