Times Theater Critic

The Midnight Mission on Skid Row feeds 1,600 people a day. This takes money. Gloria Lambert-Kesler and Carol Stanley decided to have a benefit for the Mission, with as many film and TV names as they could find.

But instead of the usual dinner dance at the Beverly Hilton, they elected to take the event downtown and present it in the form of a show--a platform version of Studs Terkel's "Hard Times." About 500 people came to see it Monday night at the Los Angeles Theatre Center, and the Mission should clear about $30,000 when all the checks are counted.

Not bad--and neither was the show. Staged by Tony Bill, it wisely didn't try for anything elaborate--just the sense of honest people standing up, as at a town meeting, and talking about some of the things they'd seen in the Depression.

The volunteer cast was well-chosen. It included Tyne Daly, Lynn Hamilton, John Lithgow, Martin Sheen, Ned Beatty, Barry Bostwick, Nan Martin, Doris Roberts and, of all people, Little Richard. Clearly, he wasn't too familiar with "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?," but he got through it.

Daly more than got through "I'm Staying With the Union." With her nerved-up voice and defiant glare, Daly made you believe that she'd done time on the picket line. Hamilton exhibited the same toughness and pride. The Depression didn't depress these ladies--it taught them what they were made of.

The men, too. As in Terkel's book, they came through as survivors who had learned to look at the people supposedly in charge of running things with an enormous skepticism, remembering the trouble they had got the country into in the 1930s.

For the fun of it, Lithgow injected a touch of Jimmy Cagney into his testimony--the Cagney whose subtext was always: "Oh, yeah?" Sheen, unless I imagined it, threw in a little George C. Scott, who wasn't at Warner Bros. in the 1930s, but should have been.

What was evoked was a sense of people who had been down, but had never been out--and who weren't going to let it happen to them again. Roberts played a woman who, when asked about the difference between poverty in the 1930s and the 1980s, replied that it was mainly a question of morale. In the 1930s, poor people didn't blame themselves--they knew that something had gone wrong with the system.

Martin, with her aristocratic air, remembered how frightened the rich had been of revolution. Everybody talked about F.D.R. and Eleanor--saying "Roosevelt' with a long "oo," an oddly convincing period touch.

We were also reminded that for the homeless who come to the Midnight Mission, it's always the Depression. Vince Yeo isn't an actor, but a recovered alcoholic who had started his climb back to the world from the Mission. He talked about that, with the same plainness and humor as Terkel's people.

The two guys who closed the show with a soul version of "The Lord's Prayer" are still on the street--Steve Moore and Tony Williams. "Give us this day our daily bread." The bottom line, then and now.

For those who would like to make a contribution to the Midnight Mission, its address is 396 S. Los Angeles St. and its phone number is (213) 624-9258.

'HARD TIMES' A reading of excerpts from Studs Terkel's book, for the benefit of the Midnight Mission, at the Los Angeles Theatre Center. Text adapted by Martin Treat. Directed by Tony Bill. Musical directors Jeffrey Fiskin, Steve Ferguson. Produced by Gloria Lambert-Kesler and Carol Stanley. Production coordinator Chaz McEwan. Lighting Todd Jared. Slides Jay Kaufman. Costumes Marge Bowers. Production stage manager Dallas Alinder. Audio coordinator Mark Friedman. Assistants Helen Bartlett, Dale Reynolds, Linda Brown. Musicians Bob Bass, Jeremy Kagan, David La Flamme, Greg McCarty, Sandy Moseley, T.C. Ryan. Vocalist Jessica Harper. With John Lithgow, Little Richard, Ned Beatty, Justine Bateman, Justin Dreyfuss, Doris Roberts, Brad Davis, Nan Martin, Jo Beth Williams, Thomas Gist, Larry Curry, Barry Bostwick, Elliott Gould, Martin Sheen, Lynn Hamilton, Russ Garner, Tyne Daly, Martin Treat, Georg Stanford Brown, Vince Yeo, Steve Moore, Tony Williams.

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