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Terkel's American dreamers take the stage

A New York group adapts the writer's interviews with a cross-section of voices from society.

January 07, 2003|Corey Takahashi | Newsday

NEW YORK — For a fleeting moment after Sept. 11, working-class heroes were elevated to the status they've long occupied in the oral histories of Louis "Studs" Terkel. That is, center stage.

So it's timely that a play adapted from Terkel's 1980 book "American Dreams: Lost and Found" would offer further introspection on the traits, strengths, faults and aspirations that bind the nation.

The Acting Company, a 30-year-old Manhattan performance group, premieres the work this month at Queens Theatre in the Park before taking it to more than 40 cities nationwide.

"Women, guys, big shots, working men," Terkel says of the subjects who populate "American Dreams." "I find theater in everybody. So-called ordinary people -- they're extraordinary if you just dig deep enough."

Now 90, Terkel, who holds a University of Chicago law degree, explains that his strategy for interviews is far less methodological than anything he might have hoped for in cross-examination. "No rules" he says.

At a glance, Terkel's subjects can sometimes sound like factory-issue archetypes: the former member of the mob, the reformed klansman, the politically strident American Indian, the chanting Hare Krishna. But he mines details so well that any stereotype you build from the outset is handily undermined.

"They tell me I'm the only beauty queen in history that didn't cry when she won," feminist beauty pageant winner Emma Knight says in the play. "They call it the great American dream. There she is, Miss America, your ideal. Well, not my ideal, kid."

"These are the voices of American society," says actress Christen Simon, 31, who plays Knight. "There's a little bit of everyone in every piece."

Terkel's original work featured interviews with about 100 people. The play pares this collection down to 23 and trims considerable dialogue, though most every word spoken is taken verbatim from Terkel's interviews. "One couldn't change it, one shouldn't change it," says Margot Harley, producing artistic director of the Acting Company.

Roughly two hours long, the ensemble production features some celebrities whom the New York-born, Chicago-based Terkel found too colorful to pass up. Take, for instance, Ted Turner, who announces, "Money is nothing," and also explains that his mustache is modeled after Rhett Butler's in "Gone With the Wind."

Close Terkel followers will quibble with some of the Acting Company's character choices, but Harley says the aim was not to be exhaustive. "The most timely or timeless," she says of those selected for the adaptation.

"I have faith in them," Terkel says of the upcoming production, to which he has given his blessing.

More than two decades after the book, what is Terkel's own American dream? "My American dream is for sanity, peace in the world, and a good martini and a cigar -- and mostly an awareness of the 'other.' And that's about it."

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