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Griffin Theatre raises the curtain on rarely staged ‘Men Should Weep’

Katherine Banks (left right) Lori Myers GriffTheatre Company’s producti'Men Should Weep' by EnLamont Stewart directed by RobWitt Raven Theatre Complex.

Katherine Banks (left to right) and Lori Myers in Griffin Theatre Company’s production of "Men Should Weep" by Ena Lamont Stewart, directed by Robin Witt at Raven Theatre Complex. | Provided

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‘Men Should Weep,’ In previews; opens July 13 and runs through Aug. 10. Raven Theatre Complex, 6157 N. Clark. $35. (866) 811-4111; griffintheatre.com

The plight of the working class has been given quite an impressive workout on Chicago stages in recent seasons, with Redtwist Theatre’s blistering revival of “Look Back in Anger,” the John Osborne classic, Sting’s new musical, “The Last Ship,” TimeLine Theatre’s rare look at the musical “Juno,” and Steppenwolf Theatre’s production of David Lindsay-Abaire’s “Good People.”

Now comes the Griffin Theatre revival of “Men Should Weep,” a 1948 drama by Scottish playwright Ena Lamont Stewart — a woman who vented her indignation at the inequality in British society even before it became the subject for such “angry young men” as Osborne, Arnold Wesker and others.

Though a hit when first produced, Stewart’s play more or less languished until 1984, when it was famously reborn at the Edinburgh Festival by Scotland’s agit-prop 7:84 theater company, and, more recently by a National Theatre of Scotland production. The Griffin staging will mark the first time the play has been produced in this country in 30 years, and it continues the company’s well-established tradition of vividly bringing to life such fine British plays as “Punk Rock,” “Time and the Conways” and “Flare Path.”

It was Bill Massolia, Griffin’s artistic director, who first brought “Men Should Weep” to the attention of director Robin Witt, who had staged the much-admired “Flare Path.”

“I have to confess, I didn’t quite know what to make of the play at first, because it was written in quite a heavy dialect particular to the Glasgow region of Scotland,” Witt said. “But then I read it out loud and just loved it. And with help of Adam Goldstein, a wonderful dialect specialist who I’d met at Northwestern University, I think we’ve found a way to make the play clear for American actors and audiences.”

Set in Glasgow during the 1930s Depression, “Men Should Weep” unfolds in the tenement home of the impoverished Morrison family which is led by the indomitable matriarch, Maggie, and her abusive husband, John, who is unemployed and drinks heavily. They have seven children, including a 19-year-old daughter, in love with the movies, who finds a way to escape, a son involved with Glasgow’s notorious gangs of the period, and another child, unseen, who suffers from tuberculosis. The Morrisons’ neighbors suggest the tight-knit nature of the community. And there is humor amidst the chaos.

Asked what makes working class dramas so compelling, Witt (who now spends most of her year as an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte), explained: “There is something about characters who have absolutely no choices in life — people with their backs to the wall, and no options, who somehow manage to face every adversity and keep going, and even extend little kindnesses. That is tremendously powerful to me, and much more interesting than upper middle class dramas about divorce. There is a certain nobility in these people’s lives, and in their ability to carry on in the face of overwhelming, insurmountable odds.

“Stewart [1912-2006], also suggests the universal tensions within families, and those classic generational struggles we all recognize. I think we’re all haunted in one way or another by our family history and family myths. I will always be my father’s daughter [her dad, Howard Witt, is the veteran Chicago actor who was nominated for a Tony Award in 1999 for his portrayal of Charley in director Robert Falls’ Broadway revival of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman”], as well as the baby sister in the family. And I think audiences are always interested in those stories.”

But along with the domestic aspect of “Men Should Weep,” Witt was attracted to the play’s “epic nature.”

“Stewart really suggests the larger societal issues this family is pushed up against,” said the director. “Although the play is set in the 1930s, she wrote it 1947, and it was really a polemic for Parliament to enact changes, because she saw no movement in the lives of ordinary people from pre-war to post-war days. Initially, she was coming out of Glasgow’s leftist, working class fight for reforms, but she rewrote parts of the play for its Thatcher-era production, and it has a more feminist edge, too. That’s the version we’re using.”

“Bill [Massolia] is not afraid of three-act plays with large casts,” said Witt. “He believes Chicago’s theater audiences have that kind of attention span, and that they respond to work that tells real, compelling stories.”



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