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."
When the Geer children were growing up, Will and his wife, Herta, who still lives on the premises, hosted benefits and provided informal refuge at their Topanga Canyon outpost for other labor-friendly actors and musicians.
Thad remembers being bounced, hard, on the knee of Woody Guthrie while the legendary folk singer sang a children's ditty. "He scared the hell out of me," Thad says, laughing. "I was only 3 years old, and I remember that. Woody was intense.
"The house was filled with music," Thad continues. "My mom would sing songs from 'The Cradle Will Rock,' and you'd hear about it, throughout the years, always in the back of your consciousness."
Adds Ellen, "It was all so much of who Pop was--you knew he spent his whole life trying to make things fair for all people; that's just the way he was."
If the Geer family suffered for Pop's convictions, Thad says he hopes this revival will serve as a reminder that the American label encompasses not only the wholesome "Walton" clan but also rabble-rousing musicals. "I feel 'Cradle Will Rock' is a true piece of Americana. Hey, man, it's as American as apple pie. People didn't think that way at the time, but it is truly American, because people are allowed to express what they really felt, and it was coming out [in the piece]. There ain't nothing wrong with speaking your mind, man."
"But you see during this period when all these people spoke their minds, then what happened?" Ellen interjects. "That's when the blacklist hit. They shut 'em down like crazy. Everything got bland, women wearing aprons, saying goodbye to their husbands at the door, kiss-kiss, and that's what happened, because they spoke their minds."
Ellen and Thad are quick to speak their minds, delving into a welter of topics--health care, big business, computer-related injuries, minimum-wage workers, the environment--that they believe should contribute to a receptive climate for "Cradle's" Populist theme. To make sure the play's moral outrage resonates with the cast, Ellen Geer uses the civil rights movement as a point of reference.
"I spoke to the actors about Martin Luther King, about any person who steps forward and does something to create a better life for us humans. And they've all selected their own [causes]. At the end of the piece, they're all going to turn their picket signs around, and on them they'll write the things they want fixed, whether it's global warming or whatever it might be. We have a 14-year-old in the cast, and even he understands it--and he's excited."
Ultimately, "Cradle" will swing or not based on its ability to wow the crowd as a piece of live theater, Thad says. "'The best thing is when you see an audience enjoying what you do on stage; that's manna from heaven. When you see an audience being happy and having a really good time, you go, 'Gosh, we're giving something out that's really important."'
"THE CRADLE WILL ROCK," Theatricum Botanicum, 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga. Dates: 8 p.m. Saturdays through July 21; 7:30 p.m. Sundays through July 29; Also, 4 p.m. Saturdays, Aug. 4-Sept. 8; and 7:30 p.m. Sundays, Sept. 16-30. Ends Sept. 30. Prices: $14-$20. Phone: (310) 455-3723.