photo by Ryan Phillips Fagan

From left, Bananas (Avis Judd), Bunny (Shanna Brock), Corinna (Janet Roby) and Artie (Keith Wick).

Arriving on stage with all the surreal energy of a theatrical postcard from the abstract edge of hippie theater in the 1970s, Live Theatre Workshop's sad yet extremely satisfying production of John Guare's “The House of Blue Leaves” gives the second half of Tucson's theater season a boisterous kick-off.

Being the directorial debut of popular Tucson actor Roberto Guajardo makes the artistic achievement even more special as he keeps a cast of 11 players moving through a chaotic story that is either tugging at your heart or clutching at your throat.

“House of Blue Leaves” premiered off-Broadway in 1971, five years after the Summer of Love, the blazing race riots, the bitter anti-war riots, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy and that mostly sad news from the Vietnam War itself. Guare's deliberately distorted sense of reality somehow caught the uncertainty of the times themselves.

Artie Shaughnessy (Keith Wick) is a native New Yorker who dreams of being a famous songwriter. He obviously has no talent, but he's too tough to quit. So Artie pays the bills by working as a zookeeper, sort of an urban farm boy.

But Artie's childhood pal Billy (Bob Kovitz) is a successful Hollywood director Artie hopes to lean on for help. After all, he's got Billy's personal phone number.

In the meantime, Artie feels dragged down by his helpless wife Bananas (Avis Judd), severely depressed and addled by the drugs Artie keeps feeding her.

This harsh relationship is exacerbated by the tawdry Bunny (Shanna Brock). She's been Artie's lover for two months, openly insulting to Bananas and committed to promoting Artie's connection with Billie so she can get to Hollywood, too.

All three actors are doing some of their finest work ever in establishing both the hopes and the helplessness of their characters. In the first act all three have stunning monologue scenes directed at the audience.

On the surface, fame seems to be their addiction. But their struggle really is for survival. All three actors can draw us so quickly into their worlds the experience becomes quite compelling.

Painfully sensitive is Judd's creation of Bananas. Somehow, using only the simplest of gestures, she conveys a heart-wrenching complexity in the first act that powers the second act.

Like most of us in the early 1970s, Bananas doesn't know exactly what is going on, but senses she is in really big trouble.

Act Two provides some context as Ronnie (Taylor Rasher) comes home from the Army unexpectedly, just as a trio of befuddled nuns appears on the roof of the adjacent building, hoping to get a better view of the Pope's procession through the city. And if his holy visit from Rome can't save us, what can!

That's the comedy part, and welcomed it is. As the director, Guajardo finds laughter in confusion, optimism in heartbreak and a bright future for his emergence as a director.

“The House of Blue Leaves” runs through Feb. 10 with performances at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays, at Live Theatre Workshop, 5317 E. Speedway Blvd. Tickets are $20, with discounts available. For details and reservations, 327-4242, or livetheatreworkshop.org

photo by Tim Fuller

Ma (Cynthia Meier) holds the Joad family together in hard times, Her son Tom (Matt Bowden) does just the opposite.

We remember the film adaptation for “The Grapes of Wrath” with its harsh cinematography of the raw life faced by the Joad family struggling during the Depression and through all their Dust Bowl miseries to reach the promised land of California where there would be jobs and water – only to be met by hardships of a different order.

All of those pitched emotions (if not the cinematography) are present in the Rogue Theatre's sprawling production of the stage adaptation by Frank Galati of John Steinbeck's iconic novel.

True to the Rogue's mission of using very simple stage designs, a nearly bare performance space contains all the action. Half of this space is a turntable about ten feet in diameter, on which is set a long table, a couple of benches and a few seats, with a canvas draped across the top, to become the rickety truck on which the Joads piled all their belongings, family members and a few friends.

The theater piece has a running time of nearly three hours, a cast of 20 actors playing 46 characters who run about filling myriad scenes stretching from Oklahoma's gritty plains to Californian's lawless Hoovervilles teaming with unscrupulous recruiters happy to exploit uneducated drifters willing to become farm workers.

A willingness to work was far more important then the ability to do so. During the Depression many rural families lost their farms. Then with no place to sleep and no urban job skills to gain them employment, these little groups struck out on their own like innocent tribes facing hostile forces.

The ones who got a toe-hold somewhere were immediately better than their peers, Desperation bred contempt. Family members would only trust each other. Basically they were all a bunch of homegrown refugees, kept on the move because none of the respectable folk would let them settle down.

There are no central figures in this story. A few are more prominent than others, but “The Grapes of Wrath” has no counterpart to Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler. Instead, we are pulled into many facets of struggle, from people too old to travel, like Granma (Molly McKasson) and Granpa (Jay Hornbacher) to the seething of anger of young Tom Joad (Matt Bowdren), incensed by the injustice all around him.

As the play is set up, Act One details the hardships of the Joad family working up the courage to strike out for California, then overcoming the challenges of getting there. David Greenwood and Cynthia Meier as Pa and Ma hold their tuckered little band together, assailed from all sides, clinging to the truck as if it was their life-saving ship on stormy seas...which it was.

Act Two is facing an unwelcoming society that had no work and precious few places to stay for the night. There were so many more workers than jobs, everyone was being exploited and abused by everyone else. Historians tell us Americans were asking if there even was an American spirit anymore.

Much of this questioning connects directly to America's shaken image of itself today. We watch the Joads and we see ourselves, or our parents. We are reminded of our neighbors and our government.

This is the value in seeing the Rogue's production of “The Grapes of Wrath.” We can look into that crystal ball of a stage, see those faces and the indomitable spirit confronting such long odds, and see our own hope for the future.

Performances continue through Jan. 28 at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, at the Rogue Theatre, 300 E. University Blvd.

Tickets are $38. Student rush tickets $15 when available, on sale 15 minutes before curtain. For details and reservations, www.theroguetheatre.org, or 520-551-2053.