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A Personal Page Out of History

Will Geer's children honor their dad by restaging a seminal folk opera in his life and the nation's.

July 01, 2001|HUGH HART | Hugh Hart is a regular contributor to Calendar

Freckle-faced kids frolic amid the bluebeards and wild roses; a Labrador dog named Ebony lazily lolls along a dirt path leading to the sun-dappled stage of Theatricum Botanicum, where spotlights are strapped around a towering sycamore tree. Suddenly, the chirps of a nearby finch are drowned out by a blast of staccato piano chords. Marc Blitzstein's music, pumped through the outdoor sound system, shatters the bucolic calm like an over-caffeinated sonic grenade. Rehearsals have begun on "The Cradle Will Rock."

The sylvan setting seems an unlikely venue for Blitzstein's radically pro-labor 1937 folk opera. Unlikely, that is, until your attention is drawn to a tree a few yards off Topanga Canyon Boulevard. Buried beneath this East Coast redbud are the ashes of Will Geer.

Long before he became known as Grandpa on the '70s television series "The Waltons," Geer starred in Orson Welles' 1937 production of "The Cradle Will Rock." Geer paid dearly for his performance in that and other left-leaning productions. In 1951, he was blacklisted. Unable to find acting jobs, Geer retreated to the Topanga countryside, where he grew vegetables to feed his young family.

"We came here and hid," says Geer's daughter Ellen Geer, who is directing the "Cradle" revival, which opened Saturday. "It was safe compared to the outside world, which was very cruel. My sister and I used to spend most of our time at school trying to dodge rocks and bottles. They called Dad a Commie, and we were little Commies."

Will Geer's luck finally changed in 1972, when he landed a role on "The Waltons." The following year, flush with income from television, he created an outdoor amphitheater on his 21/2-acre Topanga Canyon property. It is here that Ellen and Thad Geer eagerly prepare to rock "The Cradle" one more time.

Thad, 49, has the role of Mister Mister, the fat-cat capitalist who was first played by his father 64 years ago. Dressed in overalls, this burly actor, it soon becomes clear, has nothing in common ideologically with the character he plays. "It'll be a wonderful stretch," he says with a laugh. "I'm doing it for love of Pop, plus I think the times are getting close to what was going on then."

"It seemed the perfect time to do it now," agrees Ellen, 59, who serves as the theater's artistic director when she's not teaching theater arts at UCLA. "I'd always wanted to do the show, but it wouldn't have spoken to today's audiences the way it will now. Everybody knows the economy is having trouble .... It just feels so ripe right now."

Blitzstein's music, a finely wrought pastiche of popular song forms infused with insistent rhythms, influenced such composers as Leonard Bernstein. Yet "The Cradle Will Rock" rarely enjoys revivals. (John Houseman's Acting Company restaged the piece in 1983, documented on the 1985 CD released by Digital Jay.) Some might argue that Blitzstein's libretto has aged less gracefully than his melodies. Is it possible that the opera's straightforward political message and broadly drawn characters--Moll, Editor Daily, Dr. Specialist, Druggist, the Rev. Salvation--have dated "Cradle" as a creaky period piece?

Not at all, says Thad. "Look at it like you're watching a painting that was done in that era. But whatever you get from it is what you see, what you feel now."

Says Ellen, "It does so speak to today. That's what I can't get over. This to me is a classy piece of drama, and to have the guts to write it in that period really blows my mind, and then to have these great men of the theater--Houseman and Welles--do it and say"--Geer flips her hand from under her chin in the Italian gesture that says "buzz off"--"to the government and to their own union, that's pretty powerful. That gives young people a chance to look at that and say, 'Oh, it's OK, isn't it wonderful we can speak our piece, it doesn't hurt anybody.' 'Cradle Will Rock' just helps people to think and be brave."

Tim Robbins wrote and directed the 1999 movie "The Cradle Will Rock" about the events leading up to the opera's controversial production. Funded by the New Deal's WPA Federal Theater Program, the government tried to block the debut of "The Cradle Will Rock" because of its radical sentiments at a time when violent strikes were breaking out across the country.

Barricaded from the theater on opening night, Welles, his producing partner Houseman and the "Cradle" company of actors led the expectant audience 20 blocks across town to an empty venue. Forbidden by their own union to perform, actors sang their lines offstage while Blitzstein pounded out the score on an upright piano. The show did, in fact, go on.

In town to meet with his Actors' Gang theater company, Robbins says by telephone, "What was most contemporary about 'The Cradle Will Rock' was the event, the idea that a single person with courage could change things, could create a moment in history. Freedom of expression, that's the theme I cared about the most."

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