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Home-spun stories direct from the heart

By Tom Valeo
Daily Herald Theater Critic,
February 5, 1994

Every human life is a story, but this story is not a collection of static biographical facts. On the contrary, each story is a highly fluid interpretation of the facts. Like novelists, we find themes that run through our experiences. Then we tell our story to ourselves constantly, refining and revising as we see fit.

But few of us stop to contemplate our story. Instead we just murmur it quietly to ourselves, allowing that faint narrative hum to shape our identity.

Michael Smith, however, has stopped to contemplate his story. And he tells it with profound insight, humor and poignance in his "musical reminiscence," "Michael, Margaret, Pat and Kate."

Smith is an enormously prolific songwriter and folksinger who, unfortunately, has labored in obscurity. He wrote "The Dutchman," one of Steve Goodman's most famous songs. And he created the powerful background music for the Steppenwolf Theatre's adaptation of "The Grapes of Wrath." (He also played the music in the show, which was staged in Chicago, La Jolla, London and on Broadway.)

By that point in his career ("Grapes of Wrath" opened in 1988), Smith already had a trunkful of songs based on his own life. Working with Steppenwolf made him wonder if those songs could be transformed into sort of theater piece.

Enter Peter Glazer, who conceived and directed the beautiful production of "Woody Guthrie's American Song" that is at the Briar Street Theatre in Chicago. Glazer agreed to help Smith create an autobiographical work, and after a lavishly praised workshop production last summer, Glazer is staging the show at the Victory Gardens Theater.

And what a show it is. Working with four other superb musicians (Willy Schwarz, Miriam Sturm, Joel MacMillan and Pat Fleming), Smith tells the story of his life, intensifying the emotions with autobiographical songs.

With wonderfully droll humor and a deadpan delivery, Smith recalls, for instance, his education at a Catholic School in New Jersey. On dreary afternoons, the seconds ticked off so slowly, he says, that 3 o'clock seemed like it would never come.

"The sisters wanted to teach us about heaven and hell, but what we learned about was purgatory," he says.

Smith also reflects on such disparate experiences as meeting Roy Rogers ("he was very tall") and performing in those dark, mysterious coffeehouses where patrons would snap their fingers instead of applauding. (The coffeehouses, he says, which generated a sense of the spiritual, "were what the church wanted to be," Smith says.)

But the show is really about Smith's three sisters, Margaret Mary, Pat and Kate. Quoting liberally from their letters, Smith creates a portrait of four impish children who grew into deeply devoted siblings.

"We four are a whole," says one sister, who recognizes the same sort of loyalty among her own three children.

Smith's portrait is simply beautiful, or rather beautifully simple. These aren't momentous fives. Yes, the family endures unhappiness and even tragedy, but what they remember with the most clarity are mundane moments taking turns in the galvanized tub in the back yard on hot summer days, for example, and their aunt who could sing "Sweet Sue."

Somehow, these memories, combined with the songs, create a deeply moving story built on the themes of love, family loyalty and the transcendent power of music. Smith isn't preaching or bragging or sending a message. He's just telling his story. But the story comes straight from Smith's heart, and it has been shaped into a show that is sure to touch yours.

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