My Father's House
The play opens in the arid summer of 1929 with an American farmer, Joe MacDonald and his family living in poverty on a run-down rented farm in the dustbowl. The ramshackle farm buildings are overshadowed by a large tree growing next to the house.
The farm is owned by a local businessman, Cornelius Spenk, who has fingers in every pie. Spenk’s son is friendly with one of MacDonald’s sons, Billy. The MacDonalds also have a daughter, Becky, another small son nicknamed Peewee and an ornery grandmother living with them.
There is a sandstorm in progress and during the storm we see MacDonald in his daily struggle as he carries in a heavy sack of grain. After he’s gone a black vagrant comes on and hides in the woodshed. The storm abates and the children come out to play a game of baseball. When the ball goes into the woodshed the vagrant is discovered and the alarm raised. Joe rushes out with a gun and with his wife, Mattie, he confronts the hobo who is asked what he was doing in the shed. He apparently refuses to speak until Mattie points out that he’s actually unable to speak because he hasn’t got a tongue. They find out that the hobo’s name is Abe, short for “Absalom, bringer of peace.”
The kindly Mattie decides to take the vagrant in, against her husband’s better judgment and he slowly becomes a friend of the family, which is very much against the wishes of the racist farm owner, Cornelius Spenk The latter has a twin brother, Franklyn, who is the local doctor, treating grandmother, and has all the kindly qualities that Cornelius doesn’t have.
In the first act we see all the pressures on the luckless Joe, the back-rent owed to Spenk, the problems of farming in the dustbowl, etc and when he is persuaded by his wife that their daughter is in need of a separate room constructing away from the boys, he brings in a load of timber but is caught in his preparations by Spenk who denies him permission to build.
The tree next to the farm is a magnet for the mischievous Peewee who has his mind set on moving to a better life in the promised land of California. He is constantly climbing the tree to see if he can see that far. On once occasion he is rescued from falling by the hobo, Abe, but eventually he climbs the tree once too often and at the end of the first act we hear him fall to the earth with a thud. Billy rushes to town to tell his pa who, unknown to him, is being forced to pay off some of the back-rent he owes Spenk by working as a temporary hotel doorman.
Act Two finds the injured Peewee being visited by the kindly doctor who wants to help but the family are without insurance cover and at the time there is no national health service so the boy’s healing is left in the hands of Mother Nature.
The child is now paralyzed and on one of his unpaid visits the doctor suggests that the parents should try and think of something to encourage Peewee to get better. They scratch their heads for an answer until Joe comes up with an idea that sounds absurd to his wife – he decides to build a tree house.
Much against his wife wishes the construction begins with Abe helping and the end result is a very simple platform with a ladder, which is shown to Peewee but is so plain that it doesn’t have the desired result. Joe becomes even more depressed until Abe points to a quote in his pocket bible “My father’s house has many rooms,” which is a message to Joe to extend the tree house. Joe decides to try Abe’s suggestion and between them they set off to build the biggest tree house anyone has ever seen.
The improved version is eventually shown to Peewee and Joe is pleased to see that it gets some response from him but unfortunately word goes round the area and sightseers begin to come from far and wide. Gran is disturbed one day by the sightseers whilst trying to eat her meal and has to be physically restrained from shooting one of them. Then Cornelius Spenk picks up his son and says that he will be back later to speak to Joe about the construction. Joe thinks that he’s in for trouble but his situation with the injured Peewee has strengthened his resolve not to take the tree house down, even if and when Spenk tells him to. Much to his surprise Spenk does just the opposite, he likes it and has realized that he can make money from the sightseers so he offers Joe a business partnership with Joe to be the sitting caretaker. To persuade Joe, Spenk offers to try to get him into a secret local organization that he’s in. Joe knows this won’t go down well with Mattie and he stalls for time.
While all this has been going on their daughter Becky is preparing for the annual Speaking Competition and is taken to town to do some research by Abe on the tractor. When she is late back and eventually turns up they learn that Becky has had trouble from some of the other girls and that there’s been a fight in which she has been helped by Abe. Cornelius Spenk then arrives and wants to take Abe back to town. Joe thinks it’s about the fight and tries to put it off till the next day until Spenk draws a pistol and takes Abe in by force. It transpires that an allegation has been made by one of the girls against Abe of a serious sexual assault behind the library and the vagrant is kept in custody while the Speaking Competition is being held.
Joe calls to see Abe in the jail and on leaving is given a handwritten note by him. He then goes on with the family to the speaking competition and learns from Spenk that in the allegations against Abe he is supposed to have sweet-talked the girl into going behind the library with him and Joe realizes Abe has been set up. He points out to Spenk that Abe doesn’t have a tongue with which to sweet-talk anybody but Spenk dodges the issue and tells Joe to keep his mouth shut, that he’ll sort out the evidence and that the tree house is now a legally registered company on Wall Street. Joe then has a big moral dilemma because he really does need the money from the sightseers in order to get treatment for Peewee.
Becky gives her talk and surprises the audience by outlining how badly black folks have been treated in American history. While she is delivering her speech we hear in the background the sound of a lynch mob and see someone dressed in the white robes of the KKK go to Abe’s cell and take him out. Billy rushes to the Competition to tell his pa but by then it is too late. Joe then has the difficult decision of what to do – he decides to face his demons and tells the audience everything that has happened and reads the note that Abe gave him, which describes how he lost his tongue.
The last scene sees Joe rushing home to pack the truck for a new life in California and his last defiant act is to take an axe to the tree house. This is the same day that the infamous Wall Street Crash took place.
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