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Hobo Jungle

[whitespace] Old Dirty Face Boxed In: Brian Turner rides the rails in Michael S. Malone's play about the down and out.

Dennis Rosenberg

The vanishing lives of hobos come alive in City Lights' 'Old Dirty Face'

By Heather Zimmerman

IF FREEDOM comes with a price, it's hard to imagine many places where it could be higher than it was in the world of hobos. Bay Area author Michael S. Malone based his play Old Dirty Face on the time he spent during the '70s as a college student hanging out with hoboes in the rail yard in Oroville, Calif., and he has woven those experiences into an honest and often profoundly sad exploration of a fading culture of nomads. Malone's play has its world premiere in a stirring production by City Lights Theater Company. Old Dirty Face begins in the San Jose rail yard, in the not-so-distant past, where squeaky-clean twentysomething Josh (Jonathan Lee), looking--literally--for a free ride, hops a boxcar headed north and meets Carl, "The Professor" (Brian Turner), a nervous, Nietzsche-quoting hobo who fled a settled lifestyle two decades earlier. Although at first wary and even a little hostile, Carl soon grows protective of Josh; in return, Josh promises Carl a home-cooked meal once they reach his mother's house in Washington state.

As they travel together, Carl introduces Josh to his compatriots. First to come aboard the boxcar is the belligerent Shorty (Mark Wright), who, openly eyeing Josh with suspicion, explains to him hobos' survivalist wisdom in distrusting everyone they meet. Later, Carl and Josh stop at a hobo encampment, where the hobos swap stories. Although they tell their tales with obvious pride, what they recount are experiences of brutality and hardship. Little of what they say reflects the romanticized image of hobos--free spirits with no responsibilities just roaming the land. The harsh reality of their itinerant lifestyle is summed up by a hobo named Snowshed (Michael Bailes), who remembers how his violent and almost fatal initiation into riding the rails earned him his nickname.

When Josh reacts apathetically to Snowshed's tale, it becomes clear how symbolic of the changing times these characters are. While the hobos are dying off from advancing age and increasing violence among themselves, Josh is young, strong and indifferent to these men. The only bridge between their two worlds is Shelby Prentiss (Frank Diamanti), a rail-yard worker who, despite his impending retirement, is as desperately reliant on the railroad as the hobos he has befriended.

Although Malone's characters are broadly symbolic, an undercurrent of uneasiness keeps them edgy and realistic. Director Ross Nelson handily exploits that tension, bringing it to the surface with a suffocating sense of imminent danger that never really eases. The cast's all-around strong performances make these generally likable if dangerous characters real. The play's use of storytelling to capture the hobo lifestyle is ironic in a sense--in many societies, storytelling and oral histories play a major role in preserving those cultures and passing along their traditions. But like the storytellers in Old Dirty Face, the few, if any, hobos who remain today have no new generation to whom they can relay their experiences. In bringing their stories to audiences, Malone tries to give these disenfranchised travelers the next best thing.

Old Dirty Face plays at City Lights Theater Company, 529 S. Second St., San Jose; Thursday-Saturday at 8pm, Sunday at 7pm through May 15. Tickets are $12-$15. (408/295-4200)

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From the April 29-May 5, 1999 issue of Metro.

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