A scene from “Woody Guthrie’s American Song” by Intrepid Theatre.

By Pat Launer

His most famous song is “This Land is Your Land.” But while everyone knows the upbeat, patriotic verses of the Woody Guthrie classic, few are familiar with the more chilling verse — the one about hunger and poverty and welfare lines that ends, “Is this land made for you and me?”

In “Woody Guthrie’s American Song,” a story-song narrative conceived in 1988 by Peter Glazer, and currently being produced by Intrepid Theatre Company, that verse makes it into the rousing finale. It reminds us not only of the full breadth of Woody’s concern and love for his country, but also how relevant his creations remain.

Woodrow Wilson Guthrie (1912-1967) was a folk music icon, the forefather of Pete Seeger and his own son, Arlo (who, oddly, never even gets a mention in the 2¼-hour evening, though his sister does). There’s even an early picture of Arlo with his parents, among the excellent archival projections designed by Michael McKeon. Woody was a forebear of Bob Dylan, too. Poets of the people, all.

Just a plain-spoken guy, Woody grew up in Oklahoma, and after the dust storms destroyed the lives of the farm folk around him, he took to the road — leaving behind a young wife and three kids (probably not his finest moment, mentioned but not dwelt on in the play).

He started traveling and listening, writing songs based on what he heard from America’s working class — and the out-of-work struggling class — about what they thought and felt and worried about and dreamed of during the Dust Bowl migration and the Great Depression.

With his “gee-tar” on his back, he made it to almost all the 48 states, living and harmonizing with, then singing about, our country’s most underprivileged and unheard.

There’s a lot of talk about unions and immigrants, farm workers and deportees — subjects that haven’t left the daily news-feed since.

Ruff Yeager directs and Jon Lorenz music-directs a malleable cast of five, each portraying Woody at a certain time or age, speaking his words and singing his songs. There are many familiar ones (“So Long, It’s Been Good to Know Ya,” “Do Re Mi,” “Worried Man,” “Union Maid”) and many not-so-popular ones. They all tell tales, personal and political, often downbeat but ever hopeful.

Not every song/singer matchup is perfect, but each skillful singer  — spirited Karen Ann Daniels, handsome baritone Jack French, killer jazzman Leonard Patton, earnest Megan M. Storti, and laid-back Sean Yael-Cox (Intrepid’s co-founder) — has a moment to shine; each brings heart and poignancy and vitality to the mix.

But despite the gut-wrenching words and the singalong opportunities, the show remains fairly static, moving from one town or person or issue to another, punctuated by heartfelt quotes from Woody’s writings.

Yeager and Lorenz do their best to keep the flow and interest up; the second act engages far more than the protracted first. The band is exceptional throughout, and each of the performers also plays an instrument at times.

You may not love the structure of the play, but you can’t help being drawn to its subject, both the sincerity of the man and his unalloyed love for his fellow man. Woody never felt that he owned the words he sang; he humbly insisted that he “owed” the people he “borrowed” them from.

“I borrowed my life from the works of your life,” he wrote. “I have felt your energy in me and seen mine move in you.”

His energy still moves us, even as we wish it moved in more of us — especially those who can, with the flick of a pen, change the lives of the many poor, disadvantaged and neglected still living in America today.

Pat Launer is a long-time San Diego arts writer and an Emmy Award-winning theater critic. An archive of her previews and reviews can be found at patlauner.com.

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