V.R. Dunne – A Sincere Tribute
Howard Petrick’s tribute to V.R. Dunne, is packed with intriguing information about the soft-spoken but unflinching union leader who spearheaded the 1934 truck drivers’ strike in Minneapolis. Petrick captures the quiet dignity of the man and tells us straightforwardly about his life of poverty and gruelling jobs for subsistence pay and his dedication to improving conditions for all workers at a time when unions were illegal and exploitation was rife.
The low-key intimate start is sincere and engaging for the first fifteen minutes. We get the calm intelligence of the man with his glass of whiskey. We feel his humility and his matter-of-fact truthfulness. The story tells of a lone man’s struggles leading slowly to a stalwart fight for social justice with Dunne leading thousands into a united battle against the city’s capitalist cliques. This story of men and women who brought a city’s patriarchs to their knees has a natural build of excitement; unfortunately, the performance does not. Petrick knows his material and the character but he needs a dramaturge to help him craft his play into something thrilling.
There are moments when he could have used some variety instead of an hour of chronological facts delivered at the same pace, in the same tone, with the same pacing back and forth. A performance is not real life; it is a craft to be learned. I know Petrick doesn’t want to lose the sincerity of the character but he should take note of how the audience perked up when he impersonated Jenny and Dunne’s witty repartee at the café, or when he crossed his arms and for a moment hinted at the character of one of Dunne’s opponents, a city magnet who tries to negotiate Dunne out of his demands for fair treatment of workers. These delightful moments of romance and one-on-one conflict are the types of moments that needed to be explored much more. I wanted to experience the power of the crowd, hear arguments within the unions, and feel the pain of the truncheons, but instead I got a lecture. A good lecture, but this material has the potential to be more than a history lesson.
Even if the middle 30 minutes were a bit tedious, the momentum of the facts themselves made the ending powerful. V.R. Dunne is a story that needs to be told and I am grateful that Petrick has chosen to tell it.