“Where is the America we were supposed to get? Was it a silhouette?”
In the musical RAGTIME, Tateh, an Eastern European Jewish immmigrant sings these words as he despairs over the health of his young daughter, whom he has brought to this country to make a better life in the early years of the 20th century. But he may also be singing for today’s immigrants and even the native-born, who are struggling to make ends meet, to hold onto a job, and to provide health care and safe and decent housing for their families.
RAGTIME, based on the novel by E.L. Doctorow, is an interwoven tale of the haves vs. the have-nots, corporations vs. workers/unions, black vs. white, newcomers vs. the gatekeepers, and tradition vs. women’s rights, all during a time of great change in our nation.
Village Productions is putting on RAGTIME now at the Tri-County Performing Arts Center in downtown Pottstown. The current production engages audiences on several levels – emotionally, musically, spiritually and intellectually. I attended last Sunday’s matinee with my mom and aunt, and as the story and music unfolded before me, I had the growing sense that this was becoming one of the most powerful theater experiences I’d ever had. The fact that this was happening on High Street, in my hometown, which itself is facing some of the same struggles that these characters face – that made it all the more poignant.
The wealth of talent in this company is mind-boggling. The voices are incredible and fill the theater with sorrow and joy. I had a lump in my throat throughout, and a couple scenes in particular still inhabit my psyche nearly a week later.
In one, the character of Mother, brilliantly played by Julie Eurillo, gives us a distinct moment – a pause – when she must decide whether she will accept responsibility for another woman and child in need. It struck me then how we are constantly faced with moral choices. To what extent am I my brother’s or sister’s keeper? What should I do?
Another indelible scene is when the character Coalhouse Walker, Jr. holds his son for the first time. He has been an absent father until that point, but he didn’t even know he had a child. Played by Gary Giles, Coalhouse hums a series of slow, almost primal, notes of recognition and love that come from way deep within. For me, Gary Giles will always be Coalhouse.
The production and staging are inventive. Two video screens keep the audience oriented geographically as the scenes shift from various locations in New York City, New Rochelle, NY, Massachusetts, and Atlantic City. Somehow there’s a 14-piece orchestra above the set, and the costumes are astonishing.
RAGTIME runs this weekend and next. Last weekend was the theater’s biggest opening yet, and the word is out about this remarkable show, so don’t wait. Shows take place Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings and a Sunday matinee, until June 20. Ticket info. can be found at Tri-PAC’s website.