William Saroyan’s 1957 drama The Cave Dwellers depicts life’s losers, squatting in an abandoned theater. The King (a powerful Robert Hock) and Queen (compellingly played by Carol Schultz) are penniless actors; the Duke (dignified Marcus Naylor) is a failed prizefighter, and the Girl (the winsome Mahira Kakkar) is an unemployed factory worker. Like Maxim Gorky’s The Lower Depths, this play is a poetic indictment of an uncaring society—until the end of Act One. Inhuman moans and all-too-human pleas wake the huddled group, but they are frightened to open the door. The Queen exhorts her group to reach out, and in come (spoiler alert) a Russian man (Sean McNall), his wife, who has just given birth (Sarah Lemp), and their heart-stealing trained bear (Barthelemy Atsin). The bear, by the way, is named Gorky. Their presence brings American realism and plot back to the philosophical fable.
Shepard Sobel’s sensitive direction keeps the self-conscious poetic passages grounded. Funny and moving moments hijack emotions: I dare you not to tear up at a speech by an unexpectedly sympathetic wrecking crew boss (Dominic Cuskern). The cast act up a storm. With its strange blend of heart, thought, and poetry, The Cave Dwellers feels fresh.